Theresa May is clinging to power, but she must know the clock is ticking.
Having called a snap election with the aim of boosting her parliamentary support, she’s been left trying to scrape a majority with the help of the Democratic Unionist Party — a homophobic, anti-abortion party with a history of support for loyalist paramilitaries. The DUP, for their part, seem to be reveling in their role as kingmaker. They’ve taken every opportunity available to publicly humiliate May: contradicting her after she prematurely announced a deal, publicly calling on her to show respect and expressing dismay at the “level of negotiating experience” in her government.
The Queen’s Speech went ahead, of course. The DUP aren’t about to help Corbyn gain power. His history of support for Irish reunification makes him beyond the pale. Even had the DUP abstained the Tories have just enough MPs to push them over the line. But their position is far from comfortable. Opinion polls are already showing that were an election held tomorrow, Labour would win. And Jeremy Corbyn is now far more popular with the British public than Theresa May.
Yesterday, a photo of Corbyn meeting victims at Finsbury Park mosque made the front page of the New York Times. The air was almost prime ministerial. Corbyn’s transformation from pilloried outsider to national leader-in-waiting was crystallized in responses to London’s tragedies. His ability to resonate with victims, not just in Finsbury Park but in Grenfell Tower, was a stark contrast to Theresa May’s cold distance. It was an image that seemed to confirm that a different kind of politics was possible in Britain.
Unfortunately, while Corbyn may have become a potential prime minister in the public’s eyes, Labour remains some way from power. Many are pinning their hopes on another snap election within the year. Despite the Fixed-Terms Parliaments Act, an election can theoretically be called at any point — if a majority of MPs vote no confidence in the government. Should this occur, the governing party has two weeks to patch together a majority before a public vote is called.
The DUP are never going to switch sides and back Corbyn’s Labour. But it is conceivable they could abstain. If this happened, however, the Tories would still be left with a majority of two. It would take some time for those odds to improve. A couple of by-elections could reduce their numbers and tip the balance in Labour’s favour. Or a disaster in the Brexit negotiations could convince a number of Conservative MPs to abstain or vote against May.
If a no confidence vote became likely the Tories would surely try to resolve the situation by removing the prime minister. The party would select someone new, probably an individual capable of winning back rebellious MPs.
So early in the new government this remains speculation, but it is indicative of the difficult road ahead for Labour. The Conservatives will do anything necessary to hang on to power. This is even more the case with the Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn, whose program for government represents the Tories’ worst nightmare. For the time-being, this means keeping Theresa May.
There is no doubt the Prime Minister is aware she is on borrowed time. But turning a promise of strong and stable government into yet another crisis by trying to replace her isn’t an option. No doubt, the Tories will offload as much toxicity as possible onto May herself. They’ll blame her for both the campaign and the DUP deal.
Many in the Conservative Party will hope to keep Theresa May in place until after Brexit negotiations are concluded — meaning she would take the flak for a bad deal there too. But that will be a tall order. The negotiations have already got off to a bad start, with the UK forced to back down on the timetable for negotiation. When it transpires that the British government will have to pay a large severance package to the European Union and is unlikely to be secure anything to soften the impact of leaving the single market and customs union, the pressure to replace the prime minister will mount.
Boris Johnson, Amber Rudd, Philip Hammond, and David Davis have all been touted as possible successors. Ruth Davidson, the more liberal Conservative leader in Scotland, is one of the more popular Tory politicians. She is possibly the biggest threat to Labour as Tory leader, but she’d need to become an MP before she could run. That means standing in a by-election — but when will the Conservatives win one of those? When even constituencies like Kensington and Canterbury are going for Labour, safe seats are no longer what they were.
Whichever new leader the party eventually chooses, the Queen’s Speech makes clear how much they will be fighting on Labour’s terrain. The government was forced to climb down on grammar schools and ending the triple-lock on pensions, both omitted from the speech. Even when they did outline ambitions — such as a new Domestic Violence Bill — they did so knowing that they would likely require Labour votes to pass. The speech was short and focused on Brexit, much as the recent general election campaign was intended to be. We all know how that worked out.
Tory advisors will spend the coming months working out how to give the party a facelift. Conservative grandee Lord Heseltine has warned that the Tories’ older base are dying off at a rate of 2 percent per year. Every week that goes by, demographic changes make a Labour electoral victory more likely. Finding a way to appeal to younger voters will be key if they are to prevent Jeremy Corbyn from becoming prime minister.
But this is far from straightforward. Young people have been disproportionately targeted by spending cuts over the past seven years. They’re most likely to be in insecure, low-paid employment. Many consider owning a home an unrealistic prospect and are forced to hand over a large chunk of their income to unscrupulous landlords. Younger generations are less likely to consider capitalism a force for good and more inclined to believe radical economic change is necessary. It’s hard to see how the party of capital, which has treated young people with contempt for so long, is going to convince them it has to answers to their problems.
A Labour win in the next general election is now the more likely outcome. It will only take a few point swing to secure an outright majority, and a minority government propped up by the Scottish National Party and/or Liberal Democrats is more achievable still. A campaign with a left-wing Labour party starting as favorites would look very different to the recent one — but it is now eminently winnable.
But the British left can’t fall into the trap of waiting for this government to fall. It is weak, but the forces keeping it in place will be determined. The opposition to it must be built — not just in parliament but in every community. A constant campaign footing will be the only way to prevent the Tories restoring solid ground beneath their feet.
In 1996, Tony Blair joked “you really don’t have to worry about Jeremy Corbyn suddenly taking over.” Today, it seems only a matter of time until he does. Unfortunately, for those of us desperate for a change of direction, it make take a few years longer than we like.