Neil Carmichael was MP for Stroud from 2010 until 2017.
So there is a deal between the EU and the UK. It is ‘thin’ and does invite further and, possibly, endless negotiation as politics and economics evolve but, looking forward, how will this new ‘settlement’ condition the Conservative and Labour parties? Both have, quite literally, convulsed between the referendum campaign in 2016 and the passing of the ‘Christmas Eve Deal’ by Parliament just before New Year’s Eve.
In his book British Political Parties, Robert Mackenzie, of ‘swingometer’ fame, developed his thesis that the two main political parties both moved inexorably towards the middle ground in terms of communications, organisation and policies as general elections approached. This theory was almost tested to destruction twice by Labour; firstly, during the early 1980s with Michael Foot and, more recently, with the Jeremy Corbyn regime.
Both times, Labour was able to benefit from surprisingly high core-vote resilience in readiness for a move back to election winning strategies under Tony Blair from the mid-1990s and, potentially, Kier Starmer going forward. For today’s Labour Party, there is a conundrum: going along with Brexit, as it has decided, will help to repair the damage to the so-called Red Wall, but how will their more socially mobile and liberally thinking supporters respond?
Another facet of the decades since 1945 has been the propensity of an incoming government to build on the work and policies of its predecessor. The UK’s adversarial system often disguises sometimes substantial areas of agreement. The advent of Butskellism, during which Labour’s Hugh Gaitskell and Rab Butler for the Conservatives presided over an almost seamless period of economic policy in the 1950s, is just one example. Even in more turbulent times such as the 1970s, we saw Jim Callaghan, in 1976, repudiating the idea of using public expenditure to overcome an economic recession and seriously to consider the sale of council houses – all before Margaret Thatcher took office in 1979. Accordingly, the cleavage issues will now be defined by the Conservatives.
Today, as the UK continues to be consumed by Covid-19 and Brexit, the condition of the Conservative Party is causing some consternation, and is attracting criticism as it seemingly becomes more populist is nature. David Gauke, the former Lord Chancellor, is one such observer. Writing on this site, he has correctly highlighted the Conservative Party’s move to being more of a party of protest than of being the natural party of government. This tendence to define itself by protest is reminiscent of the Labour Party of Foot and Corbyn, although, not yet, close to a danger point. Just as identity politics has been a recruitment sergeant for populism, protest politics is a catalyst for the disruption of intuitions.
Populism and protest are the causes of something else which should be even more troubling for those who think of themselves as Conservatives. It is the palpable abandonment of the promotion of the national interest as a primary objective. This was very foundation of being a natural party of government and, previously, could be found in every sinew of the Party.
This change manifests itself most obviously in Brexit; the cause of Brexit, the implementation of Brexit and the meaning of Brexit. But it is not just Brexit. The recent decision to renege on the 0.7 per cent of GDP commitment to spend on international development is a perfect illustration of an unwillingness to put national interest first and foremost on the list of priorities. Soft power matters – and this will be soon proved as others occupy the space we have vacated and our reach into new spheres of influence is reduced.
When governments clatter from office – 1979, 1997 and 2010 spring to mind – the question of competence has been at the heart of the argument. Populism will wear thin if the electorate senses a loss of control in Whitehall. Here, the signs are ominous for the Conservatives, and will be all the more obvious if there is little to separate the two main parties in terms of ideas and policies.
Mackenzie’s theory suggests a likely bitter-sweet irony for the Conservatives. The Labour Party is, essentially, becoming a Brexit party – familiar territory for acolytes of Foot and Corbyn – as it reverts to mimicking the Conservatives for fear of losing credibly with Brexit-inclined voters. But, in doing so, it will not be ready to swiftly respond the inevitable realisation that Brexit is one massive blunder.
Mackenzie was writing in a time when populism was scarcely mentioned, and the nature of the national interest commanded widespread agreement. Today, both political parties have fewer certainties than ever before, but will still move towards each other as a general election looms into view. This will do for England and probably Wales, but it will not suffice for the United Kingdom as an entity as it struggles with the consequences of Brexit, externally and internally.