A glimpse into the next four years (maybe)
Jess Philips had been to Number Ten before but not like this. Not in front of the microphones. Not at the centre of attention. Not as Prime Minister. Yet Prime Minister she was, newly returned from the Palace where the king had asked her to form a government and she’d said yes. Of course she had: for the first time in over a decade, Britain had a clear majority government. For the first time ever, that government would be led by the Democratic Alliance. For the fourth time in succession, and within three years, it would be led by a different party. It had been an amazing few years to witness, if not to live through.
Where did it all start to go wrong? That was a question academics and commentators would ask for decades. Iraq? The Poll Tax? The financial crash? Brexit? Maybe some; maybe all. What was certain was that by the summer of 2019, a very great many people were disillusioned with and disengaged from mainstream politics.
Indeed, some were – briefly at this point – disengaged from politics altogether, which was the least noticed but as it turned out most important of the three extraordinary features of the European elections that year. That the newly-formed Brexit Party won it was anticipated: they’d shot up from nowhere to poll ahead of their rivals about a month before polling day and then remained there. In fact, their 31% was slightly underwhelming after some polls had them well above that, even if it was the biggest share for any party at the EP elections in Britain this century. That the Lib Dems finished second was a bigger shock, albeit one flagged up as possible both in the polls and the local elections three weeks earlier. However the point no-one noticed but which they should have, was just what a tiny fraction of the 2016 Leave vote had backed any of the mainstream parties. Whether lost to abstentions or the Eurosceptic right, it was an ominous sign.
The Tories reacted to the deadlock in Brexit and the collapse in polling by picking Boris Johnson, marking it as unusual in actually endorsing the long-time favourite (in both senses). The defining incident came when he was knocked off his bike by a London bus, after exiting a one-way street the wrong way, which might have finished the chances of a lesser man but in this case both his own reaction to it, and also the cackhanded response of some of his principle rivals convinced Tory members that he was the ideal person to make the best of it. In retrospect, the metaphor was glaringly obvious.
Johnson made clear on taking office that No Deal was very much on the table if Britain couldn’t renegotiate the backstop, and that October really was the deadline: he wouldn’t be asking for any more extensions. The EU, via the polite but firm person of Michel Barnier, said ‘non’, well aware that Theresa May had been forced to request an extension (although she hadn’t been forced to accept the EU’s amended offer).
Summer came and went and though civil servants tried to impress on the PM that No Deal wasn’t just a concept but something that needed legislating for, the concerns were breezily brushed aside as the wifflings of defeatists. Instead, Johnson wrapped himself up in the Union Jack at the party conference and made an entertaining and rousing speech to the hall but one which was fatally incapable of winning support in either Europe or the Commons. It seemed as if No Deal was not just a regrettable possibility but the prime objective.
Corbyn, under pressure from Labour activists and MPs still unhappy with their own poor poll ratings and the loss of the Peterborough by-election by finally conceding the argument on a second EU referendum, a month before the UK was due to leave and one week after the buoyant Lib Dems formally switched their own policy to Revoke. It was too little too late.
Johnson, however, had overplayed his hand. Whereas Cameron and May could answer questions in the House for hour after hour – and Speaker Bercow ensured they did – Johnson’s assertions and lack of detail became weaker as he went on trying to respond to Keir Starmer’s Emergency Debate on No Deal preparations, eventually becoming flustered, irritated and blurting out that No Deal was a bloody good thing, while implicitly insulting the character and patriotism of those opposing it. That was too much for eight Tory MPs, most of whom were already under threat of deselection, who resigned the whip in protest.
That had tipped the balance. Parliament again responded by seizing control of the Commons’ business but this time, not trusting that the Prime Minister would be as biddable as Theresa May had been and well aware that a referendum Bill would be too complex to pass or implement in time, Dominic Grieve introduced the European Union (Revocation of Withdrawal Notice) Bill. Spooked by their haemorrhaging of support to the Lib Dems, Labour backed it, with the result that it passed the Commons by 3 votes, the Lords by substantially more and entered into law. Britain would stay, for now.
Corbyn (or, more accurately, Tom Watson) had, however, extracted a quid pro quo from the smaller parties in return for delivering the Revocation vote: their backing for a new Vote of No Confidence. Those votes were delivered and on November 5, Boris Johnson’s government fell. The Labour leader had argued that he should try to form a government and that even if he failed, there was a good chance that Labour could hold office during the subsequent election campaign. His advisors, however, felt that was too big a risk and that Johnson should be left to take the flak for his failure.
The advice was sound and the election that followed produced some of the most jaw-dropping results in British political history. Corbyn again campaigned hard but wasn’t able to quite capture the mood as in 2017. The country had moved on and the momentum was with the Lib Dems on the one hand, and the Brexit Party – appalled and angry at the betrayal of their 2016 vote – on the other. In between, the Tory vote fell to 14%, the Lib Dems 18%, the Brexit Party 25% and Labour 28%. Labour’s vote, however, was sufficiently lumpy to deliver 291 seats: enough with either the Lib Dems or SNP to form a majority.
The history of Corbyn’s government need not take long in the telling. Not unlike the previous Tory ones, it tried to be far too ambitious for the parliament it was accountable to and failed. It did increase taxes and spending. Unfortunately, it also took office just as the US-China trade war got nasty. Combined with its own crackdown on ‘dirty City money’, it inadvertently triggered a house price crash in London, which spread to the rest of the country and spawned a recession.
Not that that was what caused the government to fall: that was Corbyn’s increasing interest in solving the Middle East Crisis. As the economy at home worsened, pushing McDonnell to make increasingly confiscatory moves, Corbyn interested himself more and more abroad. His Middle East envoy George Galloway (“a man with a unique knowledge of the region”), worked tirelessly across the region’s five-star hotels to bring about reconciliation in Palestine. Remarkably, he achieved it too, persuading both Hamas and Fatah elements to engage in a co-operative process in return for British recognition of the Palestinian state and £2bn a year ‘compensation’ payments for 30 years (the same as the duration of the mandate). Unfortunately, the speeches at the state visit of the Palestinian president got a little out of hand, with the final straw being Corbyn’s refusal to criticise the Palestinian claim to the whole of Israeli land.
The Prime Minister was of course roundly attacked by Farage and the new Tory leader, Dominic Raab (Boris having become the first PM since Balfour to lose his seat), but it was the final unleashing of years of pent-up criticism from his own side that was fiercest. Vitriolic anger poured out, not so much about Corbyn’s (in)action itself but more as a final recognition that the Party was lost to the far left and was never coming back. That weekend, 78 Labour MPs resigned the whip and formed themselves into the Democratic party. The following Wednesday, the Labour government fell.
Whether the defectors would have made their move had they known what the new election would bring must be a moot point. Against the failure to deliver Brexit, the challenging of Britain’s history and values, and the declining economy, Farage’s Brexit Party was going from strength to strength. Sure, it had lost half a dozen MPs to one reason or another but that was to be expected of a new party. By contrast, the Tories, short on cash and on confidence, couldn’t decide whether to ape him or steer for the vacant centre-right. In the end, they tried to do both and confused everybody.
As with Rachmaninov piano concertos or Indiana Jones films, Corbyn’s fourth effort at an election campaign was by far his weakest. With his own record to defend, it was far harder to pass the blame on. Worse, not only had Brexit not gone away, Farage was still making hay on the issue. The official Leader of the Opposition might have been Jo Swinson but it was Farage cutting through the media, appalling some, fascinating others, but getting his blame in time and again for ‘system’ politicians.
It worked, after a fashion. The Conservative Party vote had dwindled into single figures, splitting mostly between Farage as the force on the right, and the two allied centre-left parties, but that was enough, against four parties including the Greens on the left-of-centre to propel the Brexit Party into government.
Unsurprisingly, it failed too – though not after unilaterally triggering Article 50 again. It never had a stable majority and never got beyond slogans. Cutting taxes made little difference to their popularity and within six months, Farage was just another loud-mouthed failure.
They’d been hard years. Big issues had gone unresolved; small issues unaddressed. The economy was a wreck, after two aborted Brexit processes sandwiching a left-wing government. However, the populist storm had finally blown itself out and the Lib Dems and Democrats had united under the DA banner and Jess Philips’ leadership, come through the middle and won the third election in swift succession (the fifth if those of 2015 and 2017 were included). The people were finally ready for something a bit calmer: jobs, education, crime, the NHS. Politics like it used to be.
p.s. These are not predictions as such but I do think everything I’ve written could happen.
p.p.s. Shadsy quoted me an indicative 100/1 on the next four PMs being from different parties. If he were to firm that up, I think there’s some value there.