The Challenge for May and Eagle (and Politics Too)

Theresa May is Britain’s next Prime Minister. We should reflect on the fact that Britain once again has a female leader. It is thirty-seven years since Margeret Thatcher was first elected prime minister. It really should not have taken so long.

There is another, wider reflection. Not only about the state of the two parties but about politics generally.

May has a task on her hands first to unite her party then to unite the country around some form of vision of a post-EU Britain. The reluctant Remainer must become the enthusiastic Brexiteer. She now leads a party roughly evenly split on Brexit. The referendum campaign not only opened the bottle of a politics of division but it also displayed the right’s willingness to see itself as victim and call “betrayal” at the merest hint of compromise. It is - and will be - an extraordinary moment in politics.

To make it more extraordinary, on the day the Conservative party ended its leadership election, the main opposition party began one. After a tempestuous few weeks of Tory bickering, it is with a whimper that May assumes the mantel of leadership. Tories do these things so efficiently, don’t they? Labour will not be so lucky. Labour’s leadership election will be another referendum but this one of members on Jeremy Corbyn. Eagle launched her leadership bid just as Leadsom stopped hers. Timing, huh? The abuse - homophobic, misogynistic - has already started.

That Corbyn has failed Labour is indisputable to most but the hardest of supporters. He has not even tried to unite his party. He has underperformed Ed Miliband in every electoral test whether it be local or national; he is capable of piling up votes in areas where Labour holds parliamentary seats but is incapable of winning where Labour lost in 2015. On this basis - as well as a lacklustre referendum campaign - his colleagues expressed in a secret ballot their lack of confidence.

Ultimately Jeremy Corbyn cannot lead his party in parliament. A vote for him is a vote for dysfunction. When Thatcher and IDS lost the confidence of their colleagues, in 1990 and 2003 respectively, both resigned. Both had an equal or greater claim to a "democratic mandate". Thatcher had won hers in a general election but was gone within days of failing to leap the hurdle of the Conservatives then complicated rules. It was mercifully more humane for Duncan Smith. That the Labour party is a more democratic party goes without saying. It is also a parliamentary party. That any leader’s mandate is a blend of parliamentary support and membership vote is implicit in the rules which require MPs' nominations.

The vacuum of transactional politics has allowed identity politics to go to the extremes

But this is not about Jeremy Corbyn. In the scheme of things, he is unimportant. And politically it might be better to give a challenger the opportunity to defeat him openly in a ballot of members.

What is important is that rather than take this at face value his more extreme supporters have lurched into wild cries of "betrayal" and "conspiracy". Shady (meaning Blairite) groups are held responsible. No evidence is presented. When the leader of one of Britain’s biggest trade unions peddles conspiracy theories on national television you know that British politics has gone batshit crazy. When reason is inconvenient, we appear to have become a nation of conspiracy theorists.

At the beginning of the EU referendum campaign Leave campaigners talked of the decks being stacked against them; at the end there were rumours that MI5 was virtually stuffing ballot boxes to ensure we remain in the European Union. We can only assume that these incompetent spooks were the same ones who erroneaously stated that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. When Andrea Leadsom was pillioried for asserting that motherhood gave her a greater stake in the country than May, she first blamed the media, then one of her supporters, Iain Duncan Smith, spoke of establishment “black ops”. Somewhere in this that she said the words of her own free will was lost.

Can anyone else see the similarities? Those who peddle pro-Corbyn or right-wing conspiracy theories are mirror images of one another. Each side thinks the other wrong. It is far more probably that they both are. 

Conspiracy theories are an extreme manifestation which mean people do not have to confront unpalatable truths. Truths which might might conflict with their identity. The right to have an opinion is not the same as having a well-founded opinion. The vacuum of transactional politics has allowed identity politics to go to the extremes. It is why Jeremy Corbyn was elected. It is why he might be re-elected. With little evidence on their side the Leave campaigns were forced to run not only a deceptive campaign but one focused on simple identity. While Remain spoke of economic interest, Leave spoke - however crudely - to a sense of individual and national values.

The two main parties may make different choices but Angela Eagle and Theresa May face a similar test. Their challenge is to demonstrate principles, even passion, are not the preserve of political polarities.

More about the author

About the author

Educated at Durham University and UCL, Graham is Disclaimer's editor and a regular contributor. He has written for numerous publications including Tribune, Out Magazine and Vice. He has also contributed to two books of political counterfactuals for Biteback Media, Prime Minister Boris (2011) and Prime Minister Corbyn (2016).

A democratic republican lefty, he struggles daily with the conflict between his ingrained senses of idealism and pragmatism.

Follow Graham on Twitter.

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