Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Wet or Dry: Can the Tories stand the heat?

Photo by Peter Adams 

As the UK swelters during a week-long heatwave, attention turns to Westminster for the Queen's Speech, the traditional state opening of Parliament.

One week on from the shocking events at Grenfell Tower, such pomp and ceremony feels more at-odds with the mood of the country than before. A series of terrorist attacks in multiple locations in the last couple of months have also changed the tone of political debate, and brought security and defence to the top of the agenda.

Rarely have we seen a government going into this ceremony with such a disappointing draft of proposals. The Conservative project for this year began to come undone during the 2017 election campaign when the social care plans were unveiled, and they began jettisoning parts of the manifesto before a single vote had been cast.

Cancelling free school meals? Gone. The social care plans? Also gone. Grammar schools? It's now up to Parliament to decide how best to improve educational standards as members see fit. Free vote on fox hunting? Not on the agenda anymore. But what about Brexit? The Great Repeal Bill has now been included into the speech, as the UK prepares to leave the European Union, following the triggering of Article 50. Hard Brexit? It might be safe to say the appetite for this is waning. Some of Mrs May's own MPs (as many as 30) have told her to rethink the strategy of no deal being better than a bad deal. Deals with the DUP might revolve around the UK's membership of the Customs Union. Work in progress as of writing.

The main manifesto pledges that have been excised in this Queen's speech are Mrs May's social policies; Mrs May's first speech as Prime Minister was one where she pledged to try and amend the social injustices in the country. Instead, she has bound her own hands, by losing her majority in a snap election she pretended she wouldn't call. Her pre-election promises just don't have the support she needs to get them through Parliament.

The last time the UK had a minority government presenting a Queen's speech was in 1978. James Callaghan was the Labour Prime Minister at the time, presiding over a delicate Labour minority government, which had backing from Liberal MPs in a confidence and supply deal known as the Lib-Lab pact. The deal only lasted a few months and the Liberals eventually withdrew. Callaghan decided not to call an election in late 1978, something Gordon Brown would do himself in 2007. This decision backfired, and following the Winter of Discontent, the emboldened Tories under Mrs Thatcher called a vote of no confidence; they won the motion by one vote. The rest is history.

Minority governments have a habit of being snuffed out by divisions within the governing party sooner or later. Labour's 1979 defeat precipitated a full-on split between Bennites and its centrist faction and led to the formation of the SDP. The resulting chaos this caused plunged the party into a long and weary battle which left deep wounds on both sides.

Mrs May is approaching the DUP in a bid to keep the Tories in government, but she has more to lose from any deal than the DUP. The deal would risk muddling the peace process in Northern Ireland, as the UK government is now likely to be beholden to one of the factions in Northern Ireland's highly sectarian political environment, when it should actually be remaining above the fray and trying to maintain stability.

Mrs Thatcher and her successors as leader have presided over a Conservative Party split between Wets (who favoured a closer relationship with Europe) and the Dries (the original Eurosceptics). Now that the Brexit timetable has started and the end result edges closer, the Tories may find themselves split between softer Brexit and those who are keen for a more protectionist hard Brexit, whether they want to be or not.

The Conservative Party now faces a long summer of tough decisions. Mrs May's tenure is unlikely to last to 2019 when Brexit negotiations end, as suggested in an article by Channel 4's Gary Gibbons. Tories have a habit of removing ailing leaders, with mixed results. The party is shifting from within, as possible contenders for Mrs May's successor sound out Parliamentary colleagues. Old divisions within the party might start to re-emerge like dormant fault lines. The summer of 1976 is remembered for its intense heat and longevity. The London clay on which the city rests upon began to crack as the water boiled away. The summer of 2017 may cause cracks to emerge in the Tory party's facade. Can they stand the heat?

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