Richard Ritchie was an aide to Enoch Powell, and was his former archivist.
Although the Party Conference season is normally taken to usher in a new political year, September is a convenient moment to take stock.
One major question centres upon whether the Conservative Party can recover from the electoral humiliation and disaster it suffered some three months ago. That is was a humiliation is hardly contestable; but will it turn out to be the disaster that it seemed at the time?
Enoch Powell often reminded his friends that “things are never as bad – or as good – as they seem at first sight.” At first sight, the election result was an unmitigated disaster for Conservatives in general and Brexit in particular. As Vernon Bogdanor cogently argued in a recent lecture: “Theresa May called the election to resolve the European question. Had she gained the landslide she was hoping for, that might have happened…but the opposite has happened. The election has been called the revenge of the Remainers. It reopens the whole issue of Brexit.”
Some Brexiteers are in denial, invoking Labour’s manifesto support for withdrawal. But it’s clear now that, despite Jeremy Corbyn’s impeccable Eurosceptic credentials, he has switched sides. Moreover, many of those voting Labour in the last election did so because they wanted to halt Brexit: there is no point in denying it.
So, it looks bad – until one considers what would have happened had there been no election. Yes, the Conservatives would have enjoyed a larger majority than at present, but this would only have seen them through until 2020, perilously close to the scheduled date for leaving the EU. European leaders would have had every incentive to prevaricate in the hope of a change of government in Britain. And such a change would have been distinctly likely, given that the Tories would by then have been in office for ten years, and Corbyn probably removed from the scene. The Tories were never favourites to win an election in 2020.
But there is now every possibility that a Conservative Government can remain in office until 2022 assuming the Ulster Unionists don’t decide to support Labour, or the Tory Party splits (which, on the EU, is always a distinct possibility). The Government may not be able to do much in terms of new legislation; but if the Brexit process is completed, its main mission will have been achieved in a way that might not have occurred had the election taken place when planned.
Corbyn may have enjoyed his electoral success too soon. By 2022, he will no longer look ‘new’, and the fact that he came close to winning in 2017 should mean that he will now be exposed to far greater scrutiny and attack. And, surely, the Conservatives will never fight such an appalling campaign again. Moreover, while mourning the loss of the expected landslide in 2017, this would quickly have turned sour, leaving the Government with no excuses for failure and with a Parliamentary Party equally fractious. May would have had a happier summer had her electoral gamble paid off; but the problems which she faces are inherent to Brexit, whatever her majority.
Labour, on the other hand, must fear that if it fails to force an immediate election this year, the doubts over Corbyn will re-surface. It is an open secret that had he been defeated on the scale that most of his party expected, and had he failed to resign voluntarily, the Blairites were all set to form a new party. Whether this would have been helpful to the Tories is debatable. None of the old rules now apply, and with public opinion so volatile it’s possible that a new left of centre party would have enjoyed considerable success in a 2022 election. It’s less likely now, and Corbyn’s success has denied the Blairites their excuse to make the attempt.
Then there is the economy, a crucial determinant of any election. If the Tories had won an overwhelming victory this year, how different would their economic policy have been? Very different, if the Conservative manifesto is to be believed – but not in the right way. The irony is that by failing to win a majority, May’s government has been prevented from adopting some highly suspicious measures. And although many are doubtful of Hammond’s views on Brexit, he shows every sign of being otherwise a firm, unruffled Tory Chancellor who favours reducing the deficit, paying off debt, and keeping taxes as low and as simple as possible. History may breath a sigh of relief that May was unable to remove him.
Perhaps this is all wishful thinking. The problems facing this Government are frightening, and conventional wisdom would dictate that the larger majority, the better – especially as it might have resolved the European question once and for all, as Bogdanor argues. There is, however, the remote chance that the Conservative failure to win a large majority will turn out to have been a blessing in disguise. All Prime Ministers claim that each general election is the most important of their lifetime, and May was no exception in saying so this year. But actually, the most important election of a generation could be that of 2022 – because if we get to that stage, with the United Kingdom again a self-governing country, then it really will matter who wins an election. If Brexit is to be a success, the defeat of socialism, simpler and lower taxes and the adoption of free market principles will be more essential than ever. “Things are never as bad – or as good – as they seem at first sight.”