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What happens next if not much happens?

August 26th, 2018

Like the media, we are attracted to drama. What if Trump is impeached? What if No Deal Brexit leads to economic meltdown? What if both major parties split? What if the EU collapses?

But what if none of that happens? The instinct of people in power is to avoid chaos on their watch if possible. Cans are kicked down the road. Fudge is prepared in industrial quantities.

Suppose that rule applies here, specifically to Brexit. A deal is done in which everyday commerce continues under similar rules to now (there is not remotely a Commons majority for anything else), with a lengthy transition period and options for divergence at some time in the future which, like the Scottish option to vary income tax, may never be used. An attempt to get a second referendum fails. Intense controversy in Parliament is followed by reluctant consent. A few Tory and Labour MPs go independent. The economy ticks on, neither booming nor crashing.

What then? Few are really happy with the state of affairs. Remainers find we are out despite their best efforts. Brexiteers have their freedom, but a leadership unwilling to use it. The Tories are exhausted and out of ideas. Labour is in opposition and divided. The LibDems occasionally change from one obscure leader to another. 2022 comes round, and it’s an election. Who wins?

Some predictions:

  1. In the end, the Tories won’t replace May. The fact of Brexit will take the edge off for people who wanted more. There is no consensus on an alternative, and no polling pointing to a strong alternative. Replace May with Javid, say? Why bother? May delivered Brexit and remains indisputably calm under pressure – for Tory MPs, why not stick to nurse rather than risk Boris? The Tory appeal will once again be stability – we got you through those troubled times, why not stay with us?
  2. In the end, Labour will remain largely intact. There are clearly a few MPs who have had enough, but no sign of a critical mass that would actually achieve anything by defection. Equally the will of left-wingers to engage in a serious deselection drive is absent – and increasingly seats are already picking not especially radical candidates without much fuss. A few will drift into independent status; a couple may be deselected; some will retire. But if Labour wins, there will be no stomach in the PLP to go further left than the 2017 manifesto. The Labour appeal will be not be a socialist revolution but that 12 years of an exhausted Tory party is enough.
  3. Something like UKIP will resurface. The party itself may be irretrievably damaged by its descent into farce, but there is enough Brexiteer money to finance a new venture, and it’s hard to look past Farage as leading it. Their appeal will be “real Brexit” – “let’s turn those options for divergence into reality”. That will damage the Tories more than Labour if it is popular, and the success or failure of that enterprise will be what decides the election.

Who wins? We honestly don’t know, but the longer term future will only really be decided afterwards, because May doesn’t have a long-term vision and Corbyn doesn’t have a PLP majority to deliver radical socialism. I don’t see either of them fighting a 2027 election – for all the grit that they have both so amply demonstrated, common sense will dictate that it’s time to retire by 2025. At that point, both parties will face the challenge of choosing leaders with a viable, interesting project which can command a solid majority.

And most people have currently not even heard of the leaders who will emerge.

Nick Palmer

Nick Palmer was Labour MP for Broxtowe