I lay no claim to a crystal ball, but a number of scenarios are possible in the wake of the Brexit referendum which may lead to a shake-up of the political parties.
First, the Conservatives. The ‘eating one’s cake and having it’ option promised by the likes of Johnson in the campaign for Brexit is not an option. The Conservative party seems likely to divide over whether the European free-trade area is to be sacrificed for the sake of immigration control, or immigration is to be the price of remaining in the area. The clear divide here is between Brexit and Brin, but it seems likely that the Brexit camp within the Tory party will itself divide as some go for the less hardcore option and move away from “Stop Immigration Uber Alles.” With the leadership likely to be contended between May and Leadsom when the choice is given to the Tory party membership, May seems more likely to edge it. Leadsom, though more popular with Tory party grass roots members than with the Parliamentary Conservative Party, has already shot herself in the foot twice when it comes to honesty, first in supporting Brexit which appears to go against previous assertions, and now with a dodgy CV. Though May has come out as the most hardcore yet on immigration – no guarantees for EU immigrants already in the country, something even Johnson has said should be guaranteed – that may be no more than her keeping her cards close to her chest. She was, after all, a quiet Brin supporter. Whoever takes the leadership, however, a divide is certain.
Labour is in still greater disarray. Some of the Parliamentary Labour Party are already talking about jumping ship and joining the Conservative party if Corbyn remains as leader. The Labour party office is so concerned it is currently looking at who has effective copyright on the ‘Labour’ brand, only to find no one appears to do so. The very fact they are looking suggests they anticipate a schism the party may not survive intact, though I believe it will… the only question being what it will look like. And if Corbyn goes? That takes us to a much-neglected sector of the British political system in all the punditry.
The electorate is clearly dissatisfied in large numbers. The British people have more to be concerned about than many nations, across Europe and all the way out to the USA, which have had new parties springing up on the tide of populism with people seeking systemic overhaul. Dissatisfaction with establishment politics in the UK has been underlined by the Brexit vote and the number of people who went for ‘out’ as a purely anti-establishment vote. 2015 likewise played host to a general election that may be characterised as the election of the protest vote. With Corbyn as leader of the Labour party, those who feel disenfranchised have a home. The trouble is that has in turn alienated a generation of individuals who quite like a Tory Light party, in particular those members of the PLP selected in the first place precisely on the basis. In other words, there is an increasingly large percentage of the electorate feeling increasingly alienated from any Tory brand, lite or otherwise, who may have been the basis for a new populist movement mirroring those elsewhere, but who got sucked back into Labour as a viable alternative to establishment politics only now to be told by the PLP that they’re not welcome.
I say that the electorate is ignored with good reason. Take one issue alone. Trident. Corbyn has been portrayed as downright eccentric for being the only major party leader to come out against it (if we take ‘major parties’ to mean the Tories, Labour, the LibDems, and perhaps UKIP). An Indie-commissioned poll had 49% of people wanting rid of Trident one way or another, well within the margin of error for an even split across the country. The Independent blew what was a bombshell article on the back of that in analysing its political potential, instead electing for a sub-headline which proclaimed Corbyn’s abandonment of Trident was rejected by a majority of the electorate. No surprise that it is no longer only radicals who reject the mainstream media as a tool of the establishment.
I believe – but am open to correction – that no one vying for the Tory leadership has the stomach to call a general election for a mandate for their leadership, probably wise given the turmoil the nation is already in. Though not a supporter of the Tory party, and though I believe that an election before the year ends could see them out of office, I think the wisdom in not going for an election goes beyond party- and self-interest. With the state of the nation as it is right now no one would know what on earth they’re voting for anyway and we could do without the upheaval. It’s best to let things simmer down. The question is, what’s to come out of the simmering?
My guess is the Tory party will remain intact, but fractured. In the wake of Brexit it will have to move somewhat harder right in some regards, while in others things may soften by way of compensation. (May, for example, is for remaining in the European Convention of Human Rights Cameron was so determined to rid us of). However, the Tory party in a post-European Britain must inevitably play host to irreconcilable factions. It’s one thing to be in Europe and grumble about it but on any number of issues, outside Europe the reformulation necessary is going to lead to confrontation. (China is a good example. Osborne has already announced he wants to bring us ever closer to Xi Jinping, but how many would have the stomach for that? Out of Europe, less close with the USA, and we want China as our new bestest fwend? Really??? But perhaps Osborne would argue out of Europe, less close with the USA, where else? That may be resolved by China making it fairly clear that outside Europe we’ve lost much of the interest they had in us anyway, though close ties with a democratic nation happily sanctioning their behaviour could prove useful in terms of soft power and for propaganda purposes).
More likely to split is Labour. They are the most exposed to the political vacuum at the left of British politics. They will either fill the void under Corbyn and there will be defections from the PLP, or Corbyn will be ousted, the vacuum will still need filling, and it will be many of the membership and those Labour believe to be their natural voters who bail out and head for the first populist movement that arises in Corbyn’s wake. If that happens, it all comes down to whether that movement has a viable and pragmatic leader. If not, though it will have an impact, I don’t think the nation is quite ready for politics by Facebook. If a worthy leader emerges, however, then it becomes debatable whether the continued presence of Labour would do more damage in splitting the vote of the left, or in splitting the vote of the right. It seems likely their core supporters will come from a dying breed of “I’ve voted Labour all me life” and dissatisfied Tories who are increasingly alarmed by some of the less pleasant rhetoric likely to come out of the Conservative party in Brexit’s wake.
If we thought the 2015 election was interesting for the divisions it exposed, 2020 in the wake of the Brexit referendum will prove still more fascinating whatever happens. The irony being that, IM(H)O, we aren’t going to leave the EU in any case.