Theresa May has the endorsement of the Tories – and progressives should be worried

by Stephen Tall on July 12, 2016

Politics isn’t just fluid, it’s runny.

A couple of weeks ago, I almost took the time and trouble to write a ‘Boris v Theresa’ piece – just as well I didn’t, as it also would’ve ended up spiked by Michael Gove’s knife. I think what I thought then, though to be honest it’s hard to keep track, is that, for completeness’ sake, it should be Boris on the “you break it, you own it” principle; but, for the nation’s sake, it had to be Theresa, the only plausible candidate you’d actually trust not to entirely flunk negotiations and accidentally give away Wales when facing Angela Merkel.

Well, now we do indeed have our very own Mutti. The Brexiteers, who’ve perfected the quitters’ aptitude for utterly shameless irresponsibility, have fled the scene of their crime. The grown-ups are back in charge.

I guess the dream Lib Dem scenario was the triumph of Angela Leadsom, whose epic unsuitability for major league politics, let alone Number 10, was exposed within days of her rise without trace. The spectre of her versus Jeremy Corbyn (whose claims to infamy can now also include a level of sub-Leadsom self-awareness that failing to have the confidence of three-quarters of your work colleagues is actually a bit of a problem) might well have driven moderate voters into my party’s grateful embrace.

But, to be honest, my heart was never in it. Some things are bigger than tribes, and the imminent self-immolation of our economy is sufficient, for the first time, to make me grateful the Tories have re-discovered their ruthless determination to grip power tight by choosing the one leader they have capable of resolving this huge Brexit mess of their own making.

Gone, then, is the brief chimera of a new ‘Free Liberals’ centre party embracing the sensibly pragmatic parts of the Tories and Labour alongside the Lib Dems. Theresa May may be many things — authoritarian, anti-immigrant, centralising — but she is not an extremist. Indeed, she has already made a plausible land-grab for moderate Labour votes by swearing fealty to Milibandism’s vague notions of industrial democracy. If she does backtrack on her promise not to go to the country in the autumn to establish her own mandate, it’s quite likely the Tories coasting on a May honeymoon would win a landslide majority against a terminally split Labour party.

So what as a Lib Dem do I want to see, other than the schadenfreude of public opinion accepting that what the Lib Dems did in Coalition, 2010-15, was a near-remarkable salvage job which thwarted Tory-led disaster until the voters ungratefully tossed it away?

Well, what I’d like to see is the triumph of the liberal mainstream – as I described it last summer:

… to put it another way, that the party should remain committed to ‘a stronger economy and a fairer society’. Partly because it is a belief which genuinely springs from the party’s philosophy. And partly because it is precisely our liberal, rational, pragmatic, flexible, grown-up, balanced, centrist (yes, the C-word!) disposition which gives us the voters’ permission to get a hearing on those outlier enthusiasms which drive many of us activists — wealth and land taxes, civil liberties, drugs legalisation, the EU, environmental sustainability, localism, immigration, prisoner rehabilitation, constitutional reform — but about which the voters tend to be at best lukewarm.

The temptation for the party is, however, pulling it in the opposite direction: to assert dogmatic positions which at least offer the possibility of building a core base of support (understandable enough if you’re polling 8 per cent on a good day). Thus we lay claim to be ‘the voice of the 48%’ — as if, in any way, those 16 million voters are a unified bloc rather than a loose collection of groupings spanning a range of enthusiasm which were persuaded to vote Remain.

It’s a canny enough electoral tactic — witness the 15,000 new party members who’ve rallied to the cause — though I’m a lot less convinced by a strategy which pledges a British return to the EU at the next general election. Not least because, assuming Article 50 has been triggered and seen through by then, our only route back into the EU is likely to be on terms no party would wish to put to the electorate: joining the Euro, return to full freedom of movement, budget contributions that might, actually, this time be at the NHS’s expense.

That, I can only guess, has been reckoned to be a problem for another day. Until then, if you want a party of EU-fetishists, we’re your guys. It’s a USP, for sure, just not one that floats my boat.

Perhaps whatever new SDP Mk II which rises from the ashes of Corbyn’s scorched earth Labour leadership might offer a rallying point, as well as some tempering restraint; just as its original incarnation did to some of the more, erm, idealistic Liberal party policies in the 1980s. But, overall, that decade isn’t one many progressives want to see on a political tape-loop.