The Conservative Cabinet’s crisis of inaction over their ‘past her sell-by date’ leader mirrors Labour’s paralysis following the bizarre nomination of Jeremy Corbyn by a group of ‘moronic’ MPs trying to shake up their leadership contest.
They succeeded better than they could have imagined.
A landslide victory of 60 per cent of the vote, the backing of more than 250,000 members, and Corbyn saw off his immediate foes, Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper. Chuka Umunna had bowed out earlier.
The party grandees swung between shock and despair in the months that followed. Former leader Lord Kinnock said he did not expect to live to see his party form another government ‘unless there are substantial changes’ yet, step by step, Corbyn secured his hold on the party putting his henchmen in place. Leading Blairites warned that the party was ‘fighting for its life’. But all stood aside from that fight.
Unless you call resigning a fight. Eight shadow ministers voluntarily evacuated Labour’s front bench within minutes of Corbyn’s victory. Then we waited. Would the moderate wing of the Labour Party regroup, split off or put up a real battle for the party? No. Risk aversion won. They left it too late. Burnham retired to the Manchester mayor’s office, Cooper into back bench obscurity and others to alternative careers. Rats abandoning the ship – except it wasn’t sinking.
They capitulated to Corbyn either out of pusillanimity or self-interest. All that happened were displays of of faux defiance: ‘We are not quitting and we are not splitting, this is our party’, a group called Labour First insisted. Another centrist Labour MP, Tristram Hunt, said he would not be quitting either: ‘We moderates are not going to be seeking asylum, in Singapore or anywhere else.’
Anywhere else, in his case, turned out to be the Victoria and Albert Museum. As for Chuka Umunna, he’d just be happy to be asked to return to the front bench, we heard. Each and every opportunity to challenge the once ‘unelectable’ Corbyn was missed, and each time his politburo of Abbott, McDonnell, Lavery and the direct action Momentum movement strengthened their grip.
Could Mandelson or Kinnock have guessed that less than a year later massed groupies at Glastonbury would be chanting ‘Oh Jeremy Corbyn’. Labour’s elite judged it so wrong. Corbyn proved to be far from the joke they predicted.
Fear – risk aversion – of taking him on delivered them what they feared the most – an unassailable Corbyn and a far-Left party ensconced as the Opposition.
Now in a curious inversion it’s the Conservatives’ turn to play out a politics of fear, missing their every opportunity to ditch a failed leader. Keeping May in to keep Corbyn out as a strategy risks doing the exact opposite and will give Corbyn his second big opportunity.
Yesterday’s New Labour must regret not challenging Corbyn when they had the chance. Today’s Tory Brexiteers may also come to regret missing their golden opportunity to oust Mrs May, after her election debacle, and then again last week. Like the Labour moderates, they balked at action, even after a conference catastrophe that turned their leader and their party into the laughing stock of Europe. If not then, for heaven’s sake, when?
They could be ruthless with Mrs Thatcher, but not with the talentless Mrs May whose political shelf life has expired, as the Sunday Times brutally put it. Why? The politics of fear.
The politics of fear kept the men in grey suits from visiting Mrs May late last Thursday night to ask her to stand down in favour of an agreed caretaker PM. No eminence grise was sent to tell it to Mrs May straight – that she had lost her authority and must go.
Nor was she told it was her duty to put her remnant authority behind this new caretaker PM whose responsibility should be first, to get the UK cleanly and quickly out of the EU and second, to set a date for a leadership election in 2019; that the holder of this caretaker role must be David Davis, for as she must knows there is no else equipped to do the job.
But the faction-riven Tories proved too risk-averse, too selfish and too defensive of their own interests. Able to agree on only one thing that was in their mutual interests, propping her up, in a battle to control her.
Meanwhile Mrs May, who has her own perception problems, labours under the illusion that it is her duty to soldier on, that she alone can hold it all together, a self-delusion second only to her Foreign Secretary’s self-interest http://commentcentral.co.uk/boris-last-stand/. She has her mission to accomplish too – more important than Brexit – which is to identify her country, not just her party, as nasty, racist and intolerant. Why would she give up on that?
You’d have thought she’d be thinking herself about how to achieve an orderly transition, that the greater the delay, the weaker the UK’s bargaining hand with the EU and the more likely a defeat by Corbyn at the next election. But no. There should be no prospect of her leading the Party into the next general election, but who knows her determination to complete her audit of the nation’s nastiness?
Brexiteers may be congratulating themselves on having strengthened their influence with her, on getting their ‘no deal’ customs white paper published. That was yesterday. Tomorrow it may be Mr Hammond once again holding the puppet’s strings. The jockeying will go on, and on.
Making a lame duck PM soldier on to avoid a leadership battle because it might risk Brexit or benefit Corbyn, will more likely deliver the outcome they fear, an ever delayed Brexit and a population so disillusioned with this cynical party, they vote Corbyn when the time comes.
What’s the risk of a Tory leadership election to that? In fact it has a far better chance of waking the party up and reviving its flagging fortunes. A Jacob Rees-Mogg versus Ruth Davidson contest for the leadership would finally get a debate about conservativism going; it could bring back disillusioned conservatives, and deliver those so-desirable youth votes at the same time. It could be worth the risk.