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The autumn of discontent?

16th November 2017

Theresa May’s Government are suffering an undeniable autumn of discontent. Heading in to party conference it was the opinion of the Westminster village that the Prime Minister was two crises away from leaving Downing Street. A niggling cough, a cretinous comedian and collapsing stage conspired, unfairly, to leave the Prime Minister on the verge of exit. Tory MPs rightly rallied around the embattled PM as they left Westminster, but the next disaster would be even more significant.

Michael Fallon’s resignation created an air of uncertainty, but didn’t directly damage the PM. Her decision to promote Gavin Williamson on the other hand was seen as a tactical mistake. Backbench Tories were rightly concerned about losing an experienced Chief Whip at a time of crisis, only weeks before the contentious EU Withdrawal Bill began its committee stage in the House of Commons. Additionally, the spectre of an ambitious former whip with a black book of influence, but no ministerial experience looked like a leadership bid in waiting. Less than a fortnight later the Priti Patel saga was truly damaging to brand May. There was no reason for her resignation to be drawn out over a week and it was clear to all in more stable circumstances the International Development Secretary would have been gone within 48 hours.

Overall, to lose one cabinet minister may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose two is chaos. Two further Ministers Boris Johnson and Damien Green are on ongoing resignation watch, whilst the broader Conservative Party remains braced for further fall out from Westminster sex abuse scandal. The only precedent for this period of political fragility is the final years of the Major Government, when the Tory Party’s brand became toxic and ushered in a period of electoral wilderness. How May has survived this autumn gloom is open to discussion. Some argue that her reputation for propriety allowed her to float above the sleaze scandal. Others have praised her decision to avoid the broadcast media ensuring her personal brand didn’t toxify with her parties’. Finally, cynics believe that the Brexit wing of her party is doing all it can to keep her in power to ensure that her instability doesn’t risk their ultimate goal, but with the test of December’s European Council Summit looming large, the Prime Minister’s future may be determined more by her ability to secure progress in the Brexit negotiations than the whims of her backbenchers.

What all of this analysis ignores is the impact, or lack of impact of the Labour Party and its leadership. Brexit, the release of the Paradise Papers and constant infighting within Government should ensure fertile political ground for Labour, yet the party cannot pull away in the polls. Cheerleaders for the party are quick to take credit for May’s woes, citing the pressure being provided from the front bench. In reality this does not ring true. It is unrealistic to expect poll leads upwards of 15% as Labour enjoyed in the run up the 1997 election, but oscillating between a tie and 3%, as we have seen since Conservative Party Conference carries troubling echoes of Labour’s position in the run-up to the fated 2015 election.  

What team Corbyn must now admit is that they have the Tories right where they want them. Their challenge over the last six weeks of 2017 and the first half of next year is to pull away in the polls. This will be done by defining an offer which focuses less on the Tories’ underlying weakness and more on Labour’s underlying strength. The trouble is that Labour remains split over the source of this strength. The Shadow Cabinet can be divided into Corbynite ‘true-believers’ and collegiate team-players such as Keir Starmer and Emily Thornberry who are happy to pay lip-service to the leadership in Opposition, but will increasingly seek to water-down John McDonnell’s radical economic agenda the closer it seems Labour is to power. If they can articulate a credible vision for how middle England will thrive under a left wing Government then the Tory backbenches will get nervous and May’s position will become truly untenable.

Grayling Team

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