Tory feud threatens Britain

Thriller movies often end with a post-climax resurrection when the villain, shot in a titanic struggle with the heroic victim, suddenly reappears to strike a final, unexpected blow. Tories must be wondering whether the UKIP monster has truly been slain or is there a risk it might rise again in a deadly sequel? Labour centrists have no such doubts. Their nightmare under the muddled leadership (“muddleship?”) of Jeremy Corbyn is set to continue.

Tory and Labour leaders feel bound to go ahead with Brexit, despite their obvious misgivings, officially to keep faith with the “will of the people”. In plain English, both main parties are desperately scheming to prevent a nightmare resurrection of UKIP. The national interest is a secondary concern. The precise form of EU exit is disputed as ferociously as ever. Some aspects of the way ahead are a little clearer after the local elections. BBC and SKY TV have extrapolated voting intentions, showing a broadly similar outcome. Local elections are a useful, if imperfect, guide. Any poll where people actually turn out to vote offers more insights than opinion pollsters' estimates.

If the local election party vote were repeated in a general election, the Tories & Labour should expect to poll about 35% each with the Lib Dems and SNP each about 16%. This, along with numerous recent opinion polls, is strongly suggestive of another hung parliament with minority parties, particularly the Lib Dems & SNP, having a strong influence in the next parliament. Lib Dems, SNP & Greens are pro Remain so we can assume the chances of either a Tory or Labour government imposing a hard Brexit after the next election are low. We already know Labour are leaning towards continued membership of the customs union. Tory jihadists’ best chance of getting their desired version of Brexit is to cling on in office as long as possible and get whatever they can out of this precariously balanced Tory administration.

The latest round of Tory infighting raises the question, how long can the ill-fated Mrs May stagger on? Few people have much good to say about her but she has shown she can hold the warring Tory factions in something resembling a unified govt, albeit not a very strong or stable one. Any attempt to replace her would trigger another leadership election with disastrous consequences for Tory party stability. Assuming the party could limp through another leadership tussle the new leader would inevitably need to seek a mandate from the public. One of the few things Tories can agree on now is they are not in good condition to fight a general election in the midst of such factional turmoil. The question of Labour’s ability to form an alternative government is as murky as ever. The odds are shortening on a minority Corbyn administration, supported by the Lib Dems and other parties resulting in the softest Brexit imaginable, or possibly no exit from the EU.

Tory strategists know they are virtually assured of defeat if they face the electorate again led by the anti-charismatic Mrs Mayhem. They will have to find a new and electable leader before the next election, due in 2022 under the fixed term schedule. In reality the next election could come at any time, such is the fragility of the minority government. The Tories know that replacing Mrs Mayhem now would be very risky, when Brexit remains such a divisive issue, yet the contest to elect a new Tory leader cannot be delayed indefinitely. Their next leader will need some time to take control and set an agenda ahead of the inevitable general election. It's hard to see the present government lasting the full term, relying on uncertain DUP support and shedding cabinet ministers at an alarming pace with several more believed to be close to resignation. The govt has had few by-elections to worry about but there are bound to be some along the way.

All calculations revolve around the 29th March 2019, the day of UK exit from the European Union. There must be a strong presumption, for Tories, that the best chance of prospering lies in struggling on until Brexit becomes reality, no matter how disorganised it might be. Once the UK is outside the EU, albeit in a transitional arrangement, they can hope to put the great schism behind them and begin the work of shaping a new future & re-uniting the party.

There has been some talk of extending the Article 50 deadline but this would carry the risk of a Lazarus-like revival of the almost-dead UKIP. Its electoral base in local government has been virtually wiped out. Its only remaining power base is the European parliament, where its seats will disappear at the moment of EU exit. Any significant delay after March 2019 would almost certainly involve British participation in the next European parliament elections. This would present UKIP with the perfect opportunity to cry betrayal and to seek a new mandate in the EU.

So when is the optimum time to send the unpopular Mrs Mayhem off to retirement? Despite all the hints of leadership ambitions and cabinet revolts, I believe no sane person envies the task of negotiating the exit deal with the EU. Most potential claimants would probably see their cause advanced by waiting until late 2018, when some sort of agreement will have to be presented for ratification by the 29 parliaments (28 national bodies & the EU parliament). Nobody in their right mind wants to be blamed for the inevitable mess of compromises. Everyone wants to point the finger of blame elsewhere and where better than a departing, unpopular PM?

Assuming a tolerable exit deal can be concluded and ratified by early 2019, which is far from certain, the best time for a new leader to take over would be the spring of 2019, or so the theory goes. Any thoughts that the Brexit chaos might subside after April 2019 are likely to be disappointed. The front-loaded costs of EU exit must be faced early on. Recriminations are likely to persist well after departure. Remainers are likely to become Rejoiners and Leavers risk becoming Losers if they aren't careful. It is also possible a leadership contest, triggered by an ambitious Foreign Secretary, might lead to a second referendum or a “peoples vote” general election on the final deal. There are so many uncertainties ahead that it is almost impossible to calculate the optimum timing or the most likely outcome.

A further development in the past week may help illuminate the way ahead. Senior civil servants are reported to have advised ministers the earliest date by which new customs & border technology would be ready for implementation is January 2024. That means that, regardless of political arguments, there is little chance of any break with the EU customs union before then. Labour is already committed to remaining in a customs union, as are significant numbers of Tory rebels.

Transition is likely to be extended at least until 2024. In fact it's likely to go on much longer. Tory ministers know this but dare not admit it in public. The Prime Minister would prefer to keep it an official secret for years. The odds on a no-change or low-change Brexit have shortened. Tories continue to argue as if everything is still poised on a knife edge when in fact the core shape of EU exit is already hardening and it will be almost indistinguishable from EU membership, except that Britain will have greatly reduced influence and no say over EU decisions from April 2019 onwards. Tories appear to be banking on the assumption that by the time this becomes widely known the electorate will have other things to worry about.

So in essence it seems political stalemate means Britain will remain in a customs union with the EU, and the single market, for a long time to come. Britain will officially leave the EU in March 2019 but nothing much will change for at least five years and by the middle of the next decade who knows what will be uppermost in voters’ minds? Senior Tories regard the cost of the Brexit chaos, in British influence, investment and prosperity, as a small price to pay to keep their warring factions together.


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