7th September 2017
The past 18 months of British politics have been conducted at a pace, and with a fluidity, not seen since the 1970s. Careers have been made and broken. The future of the country and the outlook for the main political parties has fundamentally changed. Coming into the new parliamentary session, which began on Tuesday, there was the feeling that politics had to stabilise in some way. However, in reality this parliamentary session is looking to be the most hard-fought since autumn 1973.
The key driver of this instability is that every vote in the House presents significant jeopardy for the Government. Theresa May currently enjoys a working majority of 13. Not only is this a razor-thin majority, but her majority also relies on the acquiescence of a number of factions. First, there around 10 to 15 staunch Conservative Remainers who are concerned their voices are not being heard in No10 Downing Street. Second, there is a larger group of 30 to 40 hard-core Brexiteers who are experienced at asserting their authority. Third, there are 10 DUP MPs who are only bound by a confidence and supply deal rather than a formal coalition. Finally, there are the 11 Scottish Conservative MPs, loyal to Ruth Davidson’s and who may seek to differentiate themselves from the PM to protect their seats at the next election.
On the other side of the House, Labour MPs have largely resigned themselves to Jeremy Corbyn’s continued leadership and - despite splits on Brexit - in Nick Brown, Labour has a chief whip with the experience and authority to keep the party together.
If these conditions hold, the question remains: what are the touch points which could see the Government face parliamentary defeat or break out into civil war?
The first challenge will be the passage of the Withdrawal Bill, which has its second reading today and will conclude with a vote on Monday. Although this is a relatively small hurdle compared to what might be to come, it will still cause nerves. There will be plenty of backbench Tories, and not just Remainers, who will be concerned about the enabling powers which will allow swathes of EU law to be repealed by secondary legislation. The greatest jeopardy will come if the House of Lords pass amendments which require some support – and compromises – in the Commons.
The second crucial event will take place 300 miles north of Westminster. Party Conference may not be a parliamentary event, but it will set the narrative of May’s leadership and determine whether she can effectively command her commons majority. In Manchester, the PM will have to walk a tightrope, offering contrition about her failure in June, whilst also showing she can lead her party into the next election and beyond.
The third challenge will come at the budget in November. One of the reasons attributed to the Conservatives’ failure to make the gains they had hoped to in June was an underlying feeling that they had lost touch with those struggling to manage, best exemplified by the tenth year of a public sector pay freeze. If May and Hammond fail to address this issue, it is likely that Labour could table an amendment to the Finance Bill. For Conservative MPs in marginal seats, this could be an issue that might see them voting against the Government. A similar amendment could be tabled on tuition fees, taking advantage of populist anger.
The final challenge doesn’t come at a fixed point, but is an issue that could divide the Conservative party. There is a risk that recent decisions to give Crossrail2 the green light whilst cancelling Northern electrification projects perpetuates the perception of a Tory party who speak only for the South. This criticism isn’t new and has been a constant refrain from Labour frontbenchers and northern council leaders. The added jeopardy for the PM is that this criticism is now coming from members of her own party too. George Osborne and Lord O’Neill, former colleagues of May, are leading this charge and it is conceivable that Simon Clarke and Esther McVey could become more vocal.
If we do return to the parliamentary machinations of the 1970s, the party which succeeds will be the one which can maintain unity. For the Tories, this looks a particularly challenging prospect.
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