Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party. He runs Brexit Analytics.
It’s election time, and, faced with the inevitability of a Conservative landslide, talk in my part of North London turns to the subject of a “progressive alliance”. This is put earnestly to me, disgruntled Tory that I am, as something that is supposed to be attractive, without realising that as a term expressly designed to exclude Conservatives it’s bound to arouse my suspicion.
Imagine that Anglicans and Calvinists got together in a “Protestant Alliance”, all the better to fight Popery, but found it difficult to see how their group could be considered anti-Catholic?
In the 1980s (and indeed the Reformation) an alliance had some purpose. In 1983, the Liberal/SDP and Labour votes did in many places exceed that for the Tories. And they might have disagreed on a lot, but were at one opposing the Government’s economic reforms. Uniting the anti-Tory working class with the (also anti-Tory) intelligentsia was a coherent strategy.
This time the issue dividing the country, and almost the Government’s only policy of significance, is Brexit. Though Scottish independence might appear to come a distant second, it’s tied up with Brexit anyway. Everything else is nugatory. But the two halves of any putative progressive alliance are divided. The intelligentsia may be against Brexit, but the working class is enthusiastically for it.
Anti-Brexit forces have missed a trick. Included in the vast Conservative opinion poll totals are significant numbers of people who voted Remain, often ABC1s, but who are either resigned to it happening or think that the referendum means the Government should at least be given a decent chance of bringing it about. If we discount the more machiavellian sort of Remainer who would rather Jeremy Corbyn negotiated Brexit in the hope that he proved so hapless he would conclude the talks by forgetting to actually leave the EU, these are people who recognise Brexit is a serious matter and think a serious woman should lead the process.
But they worry about her approach to the Brexit negotiations. They work in the City (or know people who do), and are concerned that investment is more difficult to come by. They don’t know how they’re going to replace their European staff. They’re encouraged by talk of “Global Britain”, but believe the globe includes the European continent. They understand that if taxes are to be raised, they will be the ones targeted. They are, by most measures, well-educated and rich. They could fairly be described as elite, if not always metropolitan. They probably wouldn’t have joined the European Union, but could not see the sense in leaving. And they know from their own experience in negotiations that intransigence only works when you can convince the other side you have something to offer, and that no amount of being “bloody difficult” can make up for inadequate preparation. They are not well catered to by this Conservative Government, but they would never vote for an alliance of Jeremy Corbyn and Tim Farron.
However bad for business a collapse in the Brexit negotiations would be, the election of a Corbyn government with John McDonnell as Chancellor would be worse. And if Labour were to replace its communist-sympathising leadership with someone more acceptable, their first instinct would be to try and recapture their working class heartlands. Andy Burnham’s “Red Tory” campaign in Manchester provides the guide. Hostile to immigration, pro-redistribution to the poor and in favour of a revival of manufacturing, it would provide a nationalist opposition to an increasingly nationalist government.
Any future Labour leader should realise that they’ll find it difficult to compete with May by wrapping themselves in the flag. Short of holding her next press conference at Tilbury, it’s hard to see how she could go much further than accusing the EU of “meddling” in the British election that she called in the middle of the Brexit process to secure a large majority. Short of Argentina obliging by reinvading the Falklands, it is hard to see how a more propitious moment could be supplied for a patriotic election. And short of a patriotism, it is hard to conceive of a better device to divide both wings of a progressive alliance.