Aged 69, Seneca the Younger had spent many years in the service of the Emperor Nero, but suspecting him of treason, the Emperor ordered him to commit suicide. Seneca cut open the arteries of his own arms and the veins of his legs and knees, but his blood flowed slowly and his death did not come quickly. To hasten the process, he drank poison, but still death eluded him. Finally he was carried into a hot bath and suffocated in the steam. Politics in ancient times meant risking everything and sometimes losing everything.
Modern democracies require politicians to take fewer risks. We are accustomed in Britain to the idea that each party will spend time out of power, which means that the major parties keep each other reasonably honest. But right now the Labour party look far from power, sliding in the polls even from the low levels they achieved in 2010 and 2015, and with a leader who seems more interested in building a national movement than in future forming a government.
No other party is currently set to step into the gap. The SNP have huge support in Scotland but no desire or prospect of ever expanding from that. The Lib Dems are too crushed from their 2015 defeat to fill the gap. UKIP look too chaotic. For now, despite their small majority, the Conservatives have the field to themselves. We are in practice living in a democratic one party state.
As Seneca found out, the absence of other parties does not bring an end to politics. So how will the new politics work in the near future?
The first thing to do is to put the opposition parties out of your mind. They have moved beyond the category of “unpopular” and into “largely irrelevant”. Jeremy Corbyn could advocate state guardianship of children, the abolition of private property rights and political union with Venezuela, and the only people who would notice would be despairing Blairites. A member of the general public who actually registered the announcements would inwardly sigh again and be completely unmoved. For most people, Labour don’t begin to come close to being a possible choice right now.
So for now the important politics take place around the Conservative party. That doesn’t mean that the politics are exclusively within the Conservative party – UKIP and the Lib Dems in particular will each be able to influence politics by tugging on the sleeves, and the media will at times take up the role of opposition in the absence of any other – but the impact of outsiders will be relevant only in so far as it might influence figures internal to the Conservative party. In the late 1980s, the big political battles were between Mrs Thatcher and her personal advisers and other senior Conservatives such as Nigel Lawson, Sir Geoffrey Howe and Michael Heseltine. Labour and Liberal Democrat politicians were commentators more than opponents. The arguments were played out in the newspapers between different Conservative-affiliated journalists.
We can already see this happening. The Telegraph reported the story that MPs had complained about a perceived anti-Brexit bias at the BBC with the words “More than 70 MPs from across the political spectrum have written to Lord Hall of Birkenhead”, but the rest of the front page dealt exclusively with concerns of different wings of the Conservative party. Such is the political spectrum in 2017.
Indeed, those of a Brexitish persuasion might see that perceived anti-Brexit bias as another sign of this, as the BBC fills the vacuum of opposition. I wouldn’t – the letter cited no examples of how the BBC had Done Down Britain (and the one programme cited in newspaper articles, Countryfile, had for weeks run an extended series of sections from New Zealand showing how its farmers had coped well over time with a shock similar to that of Brexit), suggesting that the MPs have succumbed to paranoia.
In reality, the media opposition will in large part be more apparent than real. The media will orientate itself around differing wings of the Conservative party. The need to keep lines of communication open with other parties will seem less pressing as the need to have access to good stories from the governing party. George Osborne’s shock appointment as editor of the Evening Standard can be seen in that light.
The absence of external pressure on the Conservative party will make it less likely to hold together on any given topic. As a result, they will often seem divided and the media will make great play of this. Some will be lulled into believing that division signifies a loosening grip on power. In fact, the opposite will be true. With political debate taking place within the hegemonic party, the irrelevance of other parties will be increased. For 10 years, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown led teams who sparred more or less continually. This did not assist the Conservatives in breaking their stranglehold on power (at least, not until one of the sparring partners retired).
In short, having established complete dominance, a circle (virtuous or vicious according to political taste) is forming that will act as a powerful reinforcement of that dominance. It will eventually come to an end but it probably will do so for other reasons. The Thatcherite hegemony of the 1980s and the Blairite hegemony of the 2000s ended with the political demise of their founders. But the current Conservative hegemony is nothing like as strongly founded on Theresa May. It could founder on Brexit. But if it doesn’t, it could be very enduring indeed.