For the second time in two years a Conservative Prime Minister has sought party advantage by gambling with the country’s future and losing. Theresa May now joins David Cameron, Sir Anthony Eden and Lord North, who lost America, in the rogues’ gallery of Tory political disasters.
The country now has to live with the consequences of their failed gamble. In a sensible, modern, democracy like –say- Germany, the two main political parties would sit down together, right now, to provide reassurance to the public after a General Election that had produced a ‘hung parliament’. A Grand Coalition in the interests of stability would be one of the serious options..
In our tribally and socially divided country, with our ‘winner-takes-all’, adversarial, voting system, such collaboration is impossible outside of wartime. The idea of working together in the national interest is quickly dismissed as ‘betrayal’ of the tribe or a prelude to a ‘coalition of chaos’. My party’s experience of coalition, of being punished politically for providing five years of competent and stable government has killed, perhaps for a generation, such grown-up politics. One of the few certainties of the new parliament is that my party is no longer in the market for coalitions or pacts with either side.
So what is to be done? Lest we forget, the Conservatives won. Labour lost, despite their substantial and unexpected gains and enthusiastic campaign. On the British metric of electoral victory, the Conservatives are unambiguously the largest party and should form a government. Together with their natural allies the DUP they have a small but clear overall majority, very similar to what they enjoyed before the election was called. The alliance of Blue and Orange may not be very edifying but it is politically viable.
If their alliance is to be acceptable to the rest of the UK as well as arithmetically sufficient various conditions need to be met. Their arrangement must be fully transparent, as was the 2010 Coalition Agreement, so that there are no secret deals or bribes. And,difficult though this will be, the governance of Northern Ireland, in which the British state must be even-handed, has to be separated from the wider issue of governing the UK.
One glimmer of hope is that the DUP, for all its sectarian history and obscurantist beliefs, is pragmatic about economic policy. It will kill off the idea of the idea of the UK leaving the EU customs union which is fundamental to the economy of the island of Ireland. If these important points are taken on board there is no reason why the new government should not survive for several years, and possibly a full term.
Whether this government remains under the leadership of Theresa May or someone else is a matter for the Conservatives. If past form is anything to go by, she will soon feel the assassin’s knife. I suspect the country’s view, however, will be that since she has constructed this bed of nails she should lie on it. In any event, the country is fed up with unnecessary, divisive elections and will not lightly forgive the next lot of politicians who cause one.
There are however some very strong lessons from this election which, if they are heeded, could improve the way Britain is governed. First, and crucially, the poison has to be drained from the Brexit issue. The rebellion of Britain’s young people had a lot to do with the way in which my generation decided and damaged their future in the EU referendum. The ‘Will of the People has proved not to be the Will of Young People. There is no longer any mandate for a ‘hard’ Brexit involving withdrawal from the customs union and Single Market. UKIP supporters on the Conservative back-benches must no longer set the agenda.
There will have to be a compromise in which the 48% accept the reality of Brexit and the 52% accept that a ‘hard Brexit’ is no longer an option and that ‘crashing out’ of the EU with no deal cannot be allowed to happen. The government would be well advised to recognise that the Great Repeal Bill will not repeal very much; otherwise it will not get through the new Commons, let alone the Lords. One initiative which the Prime Minister should now take is to set up a meaningful consultative forum with the other parties to try to develop a cross-party approach to the EU negotiations.
Another lesson is that the country does not need a swathe of new laws. The Queen’s Speech, which successive governments have treated as an ever-expanding legislative Xmas tree, should be short and business-like. If the government concentrates on governing competently and the opposition concentrates on holding it to account in parliament both will work better.
We also need to get back to a sensible economic agenda. After all, much of the anger and frustration of many voters stems from perceived economic policy failure. The last election was beyond abysmal in its treatment of issues to do with productivity, living standards and budgetary policy. The Conservatives abandoned the tradition of serious economic policy making and thinking from Nigel Lawson and Ken Clarke to George Osborne. Their manifesto was insultingly thin and smug; the Chancellor banished from public view.
Labour’s manifesto at least had numbers but they were so wildly implausible that the likes of Gordon Brown and Ed Balls must have been cringing with embarrassment. Venezuela is not a role model for a modern Western economy. If 2017 is not to be its political high-water mark, Labour will now have to get real about economic policy.
This election has exposed the polarisation between regions, classes and generations. Britain is not unique. Trump’s America is even more bitterly divided than we are. If these divisions are not to become intolerable, even violent, then the way we do politics has to change. Policy areas like personal care, pensions, university financing, climate change agreements and industrial strategy have to be based on consensus between parties so that long term commitments survive changes of government. If Theresa May wants to redeem herself she should rediscover the politics of consensus.
This should a big opportunity for the political Centre (as Emmanuel Macron has demonstrated in France). But the centre ground of British politics is currently largely vacated. My party has revived-a little- in this election but we are far from recapturing even the heights of a decade ago. The breakthrough we hoped for on the back of Remain voters mostly didn’t happen. The social democrats in the Labour party have largely disappeared. The Tory tradition of Ken Clarke, Michael Heseltine and john Major has also largely vanished. But if moderates fall silent, extremists will dominate.
First published in Mail On Sunday 11th June 2017