No wonder May wants a ‘short and sharp’ manifesto

Published by The i paper (21st January, 2019)

Just in case you have not fully appreciated the farcical nature of the Brexit crisis, consider this: Theresa May might call an election next month to break the deadlock at Westminster. This is, remember, the vainglorious prime minister who thought she could crush all rivals to drive through her hardline vision just 19 months ago but ended up blowing a massive lead in the polls. Her incompetence threw away a hard-fought majority her predecessor won against the odds two years earlier, leaving parliament stuck in this agonising stasis.

The last campaign exposed a hollow politician who seemed fearful of voters. She had to repudiate key chunks of her own manifesto and was reduced to chanting a dreary mantra about ‘strong and stable leadership’ that looks more deceitful by the day.  It is not just Brenda from Bristol who will dread the idea of our bitterly-divided nation being sent back to the polls for the fourth time in five years, not least since the campaign would revolve around Brexit despite so many more pressing issues.

Downing Street denials can be discounted after May repeatedly lied over calling the last election. She has blundered into the biggest defeat in parliamentary history and is so blinkered she cannot accept any alternative to her own plodding approach to Brexit. The result is growing talk at Westminster of frantic preparations for electoral battle to resolve the logjam. Tory MPs are warning local party officials to prepare for action, ministers briefing a ballot may be necessary and there are reports of a manifesto being urgently written.

Sources say the Tory manifesto will be ‘short and sharp’ – which is unsurprising since May’s prime ministership has achieved almost nothing beyond wrestling with Brexit. She would be hard-pushed to woo voters based on her domestic record, beyond the resilience of an inherited economy still creating jobs. Ministers were ordered not to do anything requiring parliamentary consent with their fragile regime so reliant on Ulster unionists. Even that £20bn cash bung to the health service is undermined by abject failure to fix social care woes, the centrepiece of her dire last manifesto and being made more acute by her own stance on migration.

Having worked on a previous campaign, it is almost amusing to ponder the idea of drawing up an electoral strategy. It is taken as a truism that divided parties do not win elections. Yet the Tories are engaged in open civil war on Brexit with members mocking each other on social media, tearing each other to shreds on television and proposing wildly different approaches on the country’s most crucial issue. Former ministers plot with rivals how to usurp their floundering leader, braying hardliners toast their Prime Minister’s failure to deliver her Brexit deal with champagne and successors openly jostle for her job.

This fury is even more intense in private for this battle goes far beyond Brexit. The party teeters on brink of a split that has been looming for decades, one that has become all the more pressing in an age of globalisation, populism and rapid technological change. Debate focuses on Britain’s place in Europe but reflects a fundamental divide between nationalists who want to pull up drawbridges to resist change and liberals with a more open, tolerant and positive outlook. The arguments cleave the party from top to bottom.

Nor can May adopt the usual subliminal Tory stance: you may not like us, or even fully trust us on public services, but you know we are the sensible party who will aid business, protect the economy and foster growth. For now the Conservatives look like creepy clowns after giving themselves a stupid party makeover. They stand before voters as the force that unleashed the chaos of Brexit and then bickered over the concept’s meaning regardless of any impact on business, the economy or creaking public services. This self-lacerating strategy was summed up succinctly in a casual aside by Boris Johnson when foreign secretary as ‘Fuck business.’

It gets worse. For this is also the party that delivered austerity but now appears to disown it and even seems to have lost faith in capitalism. The last election showed the desperate need to woo back voters under 50 and those in key metropolitan areas, yet many remain alienated by the party’s Brexit obsession. The 2017 contest also revealed falling support from ethnic minorities, yet the Prime Minister personally presided over the hostile environment for migrants that exploded in the Windrush scandal. Many wiser voices in the ranks acknowledge the need to modernise, yet they are drowned out by the hard-right wreckers and ignored in Downing Street.

The Tories survived down the decades through remorseless focus on power. Yet this has been casually cast aside since David Cameron decided to call that wretched referendum, foolishly ripping open internal divisions along with deep national fissures. Now who knows what this party stands for beyond dislike of Brussels and hostility to migrants, wrapped up in the personal vanities of second-rate politicians? The idea that Tory salvation might lie in a snap election next month sounds like a bad joke when they should be 20 points behind in polls.

But of course, all the Tory manifesto really needs to contain is an image of Jeremy Corbyn. Yes, their party is divided, directionless and seemingly determined to deter key blocks of voters. Yet they face a disastrous Labour leader who is stuck in the past and seems even more dazed by Brexit as he misses open goals and flails around to avoid saying anything meaningful on this damaging debacle. Consider again that Theresa May might even flirt with the idea of another election – then reflect again on the full scale of this political farce that is so corrosive to our country.

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