Whatever happened to political suicide?
Trying to find the words to summarize the disaster of Theresa May’s 2017 General Election campaign is a challenge. Depending on your political allegiance you will land somewhere between “disappointing” and “shit-covered catastro-fuck of biblical proportions”. For May to go from a nailed-on, near record breaking majority, to being unable to even form a government without bending over backwards to a party filled with Irish hillbillies is maybe the most embarrassing failure for a Conservative Prime Minister since… well since David Cameron’s Brexit gamble of last year. At least Cameron had the dignity to fall on his sword and resign on the morning of June 24th. But Cameron’s decision to slink away with his tail between his legs is looking like an anomaly for a Politician these days. Theresa May is still squatting in Number 10 — and has decided that rather than slither away quietly she would rather walk around Parliament like Henry Hill out on parole, unsure of exactly which of her ministers is Jimmy Conway ready to put a hit out on her.
She’s not the only one. Jeremy Corbyn is currently riding very high within the Labour Party despite finishing with significantly less seats than the Conservatives. Things are looking far better for Corbyn though than they did a year ago — when he lost the support of the majority of his own MPs and was forced to defend his position as leader. Corbyn’s re-election in that challenge ended up being a non-contest after Owen Something-or-other was the best alternative the Party could find. But Corbyn’s refusal to stand down demonstrated an unexpected fortitude (and an unwelcome arrogance) from Corbyn — who had proven himself effective at appealing to his base but not at actually leading and reconciling with his own MPs. Most Party leaders — having received a clear message from their MPs that they had lost their confidence — would stand down and let a new, blander personality take over. Corbyn refused; fully aware he would be returned as leader by Labour members, but also not short of warnings that any General election campaign he headed would end in disaster. But his gamble paid off, as the Conservative collapse, and Labour’s strategy of trying to provide a manifesto that people actually want, has cemented Corbyn as leader and left him stronger than ever. Perhaps he recognized how weak May would be in an Election campaign before anyone else did — I guess it takes an incompetent leader to know one.
This is all without mentioning Donald Trump’s ability to bat away political scandals like Steven French swatting away flies. In both his campaign and Presidency, Trump has survived outrages that would have tanked any other politician long ago. Whether he has been literally groping his female staff or being figuratively groped (and who knows, maybe literally as well?) by Vladimir Putin, Trump supporters overlook it all the way we all overlook the amount of 15 year old groupies who snuck into Led Zeppelin’s hotel rooms. Trump barely even feels the need to tweet nonsense rebuttals anymore. And whilst his popularity ratings are lower than the reviews of his steaks at this point, it is still remarkable that he managed to win despite the number of questions surrounding him, and that impeachment is still a far off prospect. Trump would never resign, as he is totally unable to swallow his pride the way he can swallow Putin’s… well I’ll spare us all that thought. But the remarkable element is that not enough Americans cared enough to punish him during the election — and GOP Congressmen can rest easy that none of them will be punished by their electorate for failing to stop him now.
So why have Politicians suddenly learned that resigning is unnecessary? That they can linger around mainstream politics like a stale fart if they want to? Back in the good old days a dodgy tax return or solid affair was enough to sink most politicians. At the very least it would destroy their popularity and leave them with less credibility than Johnny Depp’s claim to still being able to carry a Hollywood franchise. Bill Clinton after all was left a lame duck after lying about a blowjob. Donald Trump has groped women more than a coked up Ric Flair for the last 30 years and the general response among voters was a shrug of the shoulders. Do we just not give a shit about scandals anymore?
On the surface, May’s election mess, Corbyn’s MP exodus, and Trump’s sex assault shambles have little in common. But there is one trend that all are currently in benefit from: Polarization. Polarization is a phenomenon where Political parties and their supporters become more and more entrenched in opposition, reaching a point of extreme divergence where co-operation is extremely difficult. In a polarized political sphere, reaching consensus is like trying to make Manchester United and Liverpool fans agree on whether Scholes or Gerrard was the better midfielder (it was clearly Gerrard), or getting Marvel and D.C. fans to decide which movie universe is less of a waste of money. This is usually very bad news for any meaningful political action — but can be great news for politicians who would never manage to appeal to a majority — in a polarized world they do not have to. As long as they retain the support of their own then they can get by on the support of 50% or less — confident that even if they underperform there is at least little risk of losing votes to an opposing party.
Corbyn was a beneficiary of this in 2016, when the Labour factions that make up the core of his support ignored glaring warning signs that he was risking the parties future, in re-electing him as leader. Not only has Corbyn benefited from a cult-like following of the hard-left, but his opponents have been vilified as Blairites and traitors within the Labour party, and demonized as borderline Nazi’s if they are on the right of the spectrum. Indeed Corbynites reserve more bile for the Conservative party than they tend to do for War criminals like Bashar Al-Assad or murderous terrorists like Hamas (to give 2 examples picked completely at random). But it has left Corbyn in total control of the Labour party at this point, and it would of regardless of his result in the Election. There is little chance of anyone convincing a Momentum member that Corbyn should go — and there’s less chance now than ever.
May is a more curious case. She lacks the Cult of Personality that Corbyn possesses (despite the Daily Mail’s best efforts to build one). But remains in power despite a series of shambolic incidents over the past few weeks. If she had managed to get even the basics right in the election then a majority (even a slim one) should have been an easy get. May’s failure should have seen her off on the spot, and rumours swirl that the Tories are now just waiting for the right time to strike — even 2/3 Conservative party members believe she should step down as PM.
But why did she not go straight after the election? Pure arrogance? The likely answer is that the Conservative party knows that the public has a short memory and is willing to allow the taint to be stuck on May the individual rather than the entire Party — and by the time a reasonable replacement is ready to take over, they will be insulated from the Theresa rot. Their gamble is that enough voters are polarized against the idea of a Corbyn government that they will be willing to forgive the complete incompetence of May’s leadership and will default back to support for a Conservative Party led by Boris, Davis or any of the other Lizards. Whether Corbyn can continue to punch above his weight and funnel votes from the Conservatives will remain to be seen — taking back votes from UKIP and the SNP is a very different prospect to convincing lifelong Tory voters to switch to a Party led by a man who they view as a lefty-terrorist sympathizer. But the fact that May was not forced out after her electoral disaster shows that attempting to appeal across party lines is no longer a priority for the Conservative Party. They do not fear Corbyn or care about appealing to his supporters by bowing to their demands that their leader should go even if she is all out at sea. And they are confident enough that even if their own members want her gone, they’re still gonna vote Tory anyway.
Whoever becomes next Conservative leader will test this theory out — will they force May out themselves? will they call a General Election early? If so it would at least demonstrate that the Party itself is still aware that reputation counts for something — and it will bank on a new leader being quarantined enough from May’s folly. But make no mistake: politicians are more insulated against the guillotine than ever before. And until the electorate becomes less entrenched in their voting patterns, they will continue to realize their security.