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On another planet

May 26th, 2018

Rebel Tory MPs have lost a sense of reality if they think an election will improve their position

Politics is supposed to be the art of the possible. In one sense that’s just a truism: that which happens is, by definition, within the bounds of the possible. However, this week’s shown up again that Bismarck’s aphorism is only true to a degree. There are plenty of politicians who are not interested in the possible but only in their own priorities. And there are others who are sufficiently deluded as to believe that their own priorities are possible, against all available evidence.

Dominic Cummings is not a politician, though he is hugely political. The driving force behind the Leave campaign is not a happy man at how the government is going about delivering it – or, as he sees it, not delivering it. In a blog post earlier this week, he made a lot of criticisms of ministers, Tory Leave MPs, civil servants and others about how they have gone about Brexit. Much of that criticism is fair enough but the mistake he makes is far too frequently to ignore the world outside Whitehall. He is not alone in this error.

The truth is that while Theresa May and her team have struggled both to formulate a policy and to implement it, this is only in part down to establishment resistance, poor advice, poor strategy and the other causes Cummings blames. It’s also down to two much simpler things.

Firstly, the government still wants to have its cake and eat it – or at least, it does officially. In truth, it must know that it cannot leave and retain most of the benefits with little of the cost or responsibilities but that doesn’t square with, on the one hand, the commitment to leave, and on the other, the desire not to significantly impede trade and other links.

And secondly, numbers. Corbyn might be offering the Tories a few free passes on Brexit that his MPs would rather he didn’t but even he has his limits. May is clearly being pulled in all directions in part because she hasn’t got a firm grip herself but mainly because she’s constantly having to assuage her own factions in order to ensure she retains a majority.

Which is presumably why the notion of another early election has again reared its head this week, with claims that Tory MPs are preparing for a snap poll this autumn. It may be that this talk is simply a ruse to enable MPs to be reselected for their constituencies as early as possible (if so, this will of itself work against the Boundary Review being approved – MPs with an assured seat will be less likely to destroy it than those who only assume that they’ll be readopted). However, it may be that the talk is in earnest.

The suggestion from the anonymous MP in the Metro was that an election would somehow clear the air. This is the point at which the art of the possible has become the art of delusion.

    Any strongly Leave Tory MP who thinks that their cause would be aided by an early election is on another planet.

In fact, it’s not clear whether the MP even understands the process. He (let’s assume it’s a man) says that a Vote of No Confidence in the PM would probably lead to a general election. That might be true but it’s convoluted. For a start, a VoNC in the PM within parliament wouldn’t carry any constitutional weight; it’s only such a vote in the government that’d matter. Perhaps he’s lazily using one as shorthand for the other. If so, the government would only lose if the DUP withdraw support or if at least five Tories vote against their own party – something which would immediately result in their expulsion, assuming that the government wanted to win.

In this scenario, the Conservatives would be in obvious chaos, without a meaningful Brexit policy (and unable to implement one if it did exist), losing the support of its own MPs or its ally, and suffering serial defeats in the Commons. How could it credibly run an election campaign? What would it be campaigning for? How could it say what it would do? In such a state of paralysis, it would be a sitting duck for Corbyn’s energetic campaign assertions.

On the other hand, if he meant that the Tory MPs would No Confidence the PM, then he’s talking about a party leadership election. While that could in theory be carried out quickly – as those that resulted in the election of Howard and May were – that would almost certainly not be the case if the Tories were deeply divided. We’d be looking at maybe six weeks of a Tory leadership campaign, followed by another five or six weeks of a general election, if the new PM felt, as the MP presumably he would, that a national mandate was necessary.

While under this scenario, the Tories wouldn’t necessarily be heading for the certain defeat that they would if they lost control of the Commons, it’d still take around three months out of what is already a tight negotiating timetable, meaning that the only options then would be to take the deal on offer from the EU (in which case, why bother with the elections), to reject the deal (which would be an exceptionally high-risk and potentially high-cost option), or to request an extension. These options would also be the only ones open to a Labour government, should one form in the late autumn.

So we return to what’s possible. An election this year would very likely lead to a Labour government and/or a Soft Brexit on the EU’s terms – and just perhaps, no real Brexit at all. You’d expect Tory MPs to do everything possible to avoid that outcome. Given that together with the DUP they have a majority, that shouldn’t be too difficult. What isn’t possible is to change things the other way: there simply neither the time nor the opportunity to shift the parliamentary maths towards Leave. Nor is there time to do as Cummings suggests, and ‘rewire’ the mechanics of power in Whitehall, even before considering whether such a revolution would be a wise idea in the middle of the most complex negotiation in generations.

All in all, I think that the 7/1 offered against an election this year (Betfred) is short by at least a factor of three. There is neither the need nor the desire for yet another national poll and it’d be an act of both desperation and foolishness were Tory MPs to trigger one – and while some might be desperate, they’re not foolish.

David Herdson