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A very British coup. A way back for the defeated centre?

May 29th, 2018

These have been dark times for pragmatic politicians. Both the Conservative party and the Labour party have been taken over by politicians pursuing projects for ideological reasons, uninterested in any evidence as to whether those projects were actually beneficial for the nation. In both parties, moderates have been marginalised as the extremists compete to apply purity tests for their projects.

Since the election last year, neither group of ideologues has yet established a decisive polling lead. In the wake of the election, Labour appeared to move ahead a little. Earlier this year, the polls swung back the other way, with the Conservatives establishing a small lead. Just possibly there has been a fresh oscillation: the last two polls have shown the two main parties dead level.

This Parliament has potentially another four years to play out. In that time, the Conservatives could make a success of Brexit, establishing a decisive lead. Or they might see their coalition fall apart as the reality of Brexit alienates one or more groups. Labour could collapse into internecine warfare. Or Jeremy Corbyn’s campaigning could see them surge to success at the next election.

So far as we can tell anything at the moment, it seems that the two main voting blocs look surprisingly sturdy: the differences are at the margins. It’s entirely possible that the current deadlock could continue to the next election. There has to be a good chance that Britain will have a fourth successive close election.

What might this mean in practice? Let’s use the most recent Ipsos-MORI poll as a base. In that poll, Labour and the Conservatives were tied on 40%, the Lib Dems were on 7%, the Greens were on 5% and UKIP were on 2%. Electoral Calculus predicts that this would translate into the following tallies in the House of Commons:

Conservatives: 298

Labour: 276

Lib Dems: 14

SNP: 39

Greens: 1

Plaid Cymru: 4

Northern Ireland: 18 (I’m assuming the DUP again get 10)

As you can see, this would be what is technically known as a gigantic heaving mess. Labour, the Greens and the nationalists would get to 320, while the Conservatives and the DUP would get to 308. Neither of these constitute a working majority. In each case, it cannot be assumed that these blocs would coalesce.

The role of the Lib Dems would potentially be crucial. They could work with either bloc to establish an unstable working majority. Or they could work against either bloc.

Who would they choose to work with? The Conservatives would have lost seats but would remain the largest party. Labour would have gained seats but would remain very much second. Neither line-up looks particularly stable. Both main parties’ leaderships look very distant from the Lib Dems’ policy position.

The Lib Dems would no doubt pursue policy objectives. This would make the Conservatives hard to work with, given how hostile the recent Lib Dem members have been towards Brexit (their past experience of coalition with the Conservatives would also not be likely to make the idea of a repeat particularly appealing). They would no doubt seek to drag Labour in a more pro-EU policy direction.

But they might be bolder. It is no secret that many Labour MPs have little time for their current leader: they failed to oust him in 2016 and have since retreated into a sullen silence. In the main they have not obviously been converted to his merits since. In 2010, Nick Clegg told Labour that he would not countenance a deal with them unless Gordon Brown was replaced as Prime Minister. Might the 2022 Lib Dem leader try the same trick?

The Labour membership would be incandescent. But after the election their leverage would be limited. Above all, they cannot control the Lib Dems, who could vow to vote no confidence in any attempt at a government headed by someone who they believed did not have majority support in the House of Commons.

If matters were forced to such a vote and the Commons indeed passed a vote of no confidence, then at that point, things would get interesting. The House of Commons would then have 14 days to pass a vote of confidence in a government or a fresh general election would be held. Would the present Labour leadership acquiesce in the Lib Dems’ replacing their candidate for Prime Minister? Would Labour Parliamentary party discipline hold if the leadership set its face against such a demand? Would the Conservatives try their luck?

Politics would be a white knuckle ride for those two weeks. One of the more likely outcomes would be that a fresh Labour candidate for Prime Minister (not necessarily a fresh Labour leader) would emerge, probably from the soft left to keep as wide a span of support in Parliament as possible.

And suddenly the moderates could have got hold of the reins of power again.

This is of course just one scenario. But it illustrates a wider point. Ideologues can and have taken control of the main political parties. But in a hung Parliament, the preponderance of moderates on the Parliamentary benches can make themselves felt.

However, we may not need to wait for the next election. The Brexit bills are returning to the House of Commons next month. That preponderance of moderates in a hung Parliament have their opportunity to take back control from the government. They should have the courage of their convictions and grab that opportunity.

Alastair Meeks