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Ian Birrell

  • Award-winning columnist and foreign reporter. Contributing editor of The Mail on Sunday and weekly columnist in the 'i' paper. Writes regularly for many other papers, platforms and magazines. Frequent broadcaster and speaker at events. Co-founder wth Damon Albarn of the Africa Express music project and executive producer of 4 albums...Read more
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The right’s theory has been tested to destruction

Published by The i paper (12th June, 2017)

What a mess. What a massive bloody mess. Our leaders have made monumental misjudgements, leaving our land almost ungovernable while the world erupts into volatility. First the Tories insisted on a stupid and self-serving referendum that jeopardises Britain’s future. Then as the economy stumbles and fissures open across society, they called a stupid and self-serving election. So now we are left hopelessly weak and divided on brink of the most important discussions facing our country for decades.

Theresa May looks pathetic as she surveys the wreckage of her political career, having droned on in her dismal campaign about the need for strength and stability before Brexit. She has cabinet ministers in open revolt against her leadership who are resisting reshuffle attempts, removing key aides and demanding more discussion on policy. And she is forced to rely on support from bigots from Northern Ireland.

How shameful that the woman who once told Tories they were seen as the nasty party crawls to a tiny group of sexist and homophobic MPs to retain her job. How cruelly ironic that having attacked Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn for flirting with Irish terrorists, she clings to power only with aid of a party linked to Ulster paramilitaries. And how appalling that to retain her position she forces out her two most loyal aides to deflect responsibility for a dismal campaign.

There is no question May should exit the political stage rather than carry on pushing this delusion that she alone can handle Brexit. However exhausted and depressed by the whirl of events, her lack of contrition when standing on the Downing Street doorstep responding to the electorate’s damning verdict was the final nail. It exposed astonishing failure to appreciate the national mood and abject unsuitability for the challenge of leading Britain along the torturous path of looming negotiations with so much at stake.

The curse of Brexit lies behind all this, although the architects of this absurdity have run for cover when confronted by reality. Perhaps it can still be headed off, despite the triggering of Article 50; certainly European diplomats tell me that we do not technically leave until any signing of a formal exit deal in two years time. But as Lord Heseltine says, Europe is like a cancer eating through the Conservative Party. It has brought down the last three Tory prime ministers and May looks likely to be the fourth. The only question is when she goes.

But the party should not forget her predecessor won in 2015 by moving to the centre, however haphazardly and undermined by austerity. Sadly he gave into constant pressure from Europhobic headbangers, foolishly thinking that throwing them red meat would sate their fury with Brussels. The end result was the wretched referendum and his resignation. By contrast May adopted the right’s theory that antipathy to foreigners and closed borders, plus regressive policies on issues such as fox-hunting and grammar schools, would win the Ukip vote and carry the Tories to victory. This has now been tested to destruction.

David Cameron was agog to see some of the Tory target seats, telling friends these were staunch Labour strongholds that would never back Conservatives. He was proved correct, yet only after the party poured resources and firepower into places that stayed red. Even Halifax, where that botched manifesto was launched, saw Labour ramp up its vote by 12.8 per cent as voters who had left for Ukip returned to their natural home. The consequence of this doomed strategy is the desertion of cosmopolitans, the loathing of young voters and casual loss of a hard-won majority.

The Tories have tried repeatedly to win from the right without success. This time the consequences are more serious since it is  Corbyn and his hard-left chums who stand on threshold of power. He has stumbled upon an alliance of disenchanted middle-class metropolitans, determined young voters and disgruntled public sector workers. His populist touch and disarming manner proved highly effective in the campaign. But some credit for his success must go to the Brexiteers who forced out Cameron, whose crass nationalism deters liberals, younger voters and ‘citizens of the world.’

One key Cameron ally told me bitterly that a Brexiteer must succeed May ‘so they take responsibility for the consequences of their actions.’ But the idea of that flakey chancer Boris Johnson in Downing Street is terrifying at such a critical juncture for our nation. It is hard to see Amber Rudd as a credible alternative, given her slender majority in Hastings. Perhaps David Davis is best of a bad bunch, since he seems to be adopting a pragmatic approach to Brexit and is a bold character – yet could this veteran bruiser defeat Corbyn’s spendthrift populism and a resurgent Labour party?

The party has strong talent lower down the ranks, which must be promoted speedily into top jobs. Yet this depressing election proves divisions in politics are now as much about closed and open borders for goods, service and people as they are about older issues of left and right. The Tories risk being on the wrong side of history if they take many more false steps, despite ending the election with most seats.

As dust clears from last week’s contest, there seems only one prominent Tory with the finesse, the modernity and the populist touch to respond to the surprising new challenge of Corbyn. Ruth Davidson dragged her party in Scotland back from the abyss and, in doing so, temporarily saved May’s skin. She was intending to stand for Westminster in 2020. For the sake of her party and country, she may need to hastily advance her plans.

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