The Tories After May

It’s not unusual for a party leader to resign the day after an election. For a party leader to be forced out of office by their own supporters after the polls have closed but before the results are in is a little more unusual. When Theresa May announced her resignation from Downing Street on Friday 24th May it was hardly a surprise; the surprise is that she has lasted so long. She did so buffered by the arithmetic in her own party and in the House of Commons. She won a vote of confidence in her leadership within the Tory Party late last year and that pushed her into a more secure position, provided that she could then get her Brexit deal through the House of Commons. In return the House of Commons had the numbers to oppose her deal but not the numbers to bring down her down. However, the Parliamentary shenanigans were not the straw that broke the camel’s back. That was the elections to the European Parliament last Thursday, elections the Tories knew they were going to lose dramatically when the results were declared three days later.

The crucial relationship that propels this story isn’t one between figures within the Conservative Party; it is the relationship between that party and one man: Nigel Farage. In Farage the Tories have something that started out as an annoying itch but developed into a carbuncle. Through UKIP Farage posed a threat to the Tories with the possibility of gaining seats at Westminster and the idea of a referendum on the UK remaining or leaving the EU was floated. David Cameron considered the idea in 2010 but the coalition with the Lib Dems made a referendum then impossible. Offering a referendum in 2015 may have been the reason that Cameron won an overall majority, seeing off the threat of Farage’s UKIP, and the resulting referendum in 2016 split the voting public pretty much down the middle, with a slight advantage for the Leave camp.

That result, designed to shore up support for a David Cameron vision of the UK within Europe, saw another resignation from Downing Street and any hope Cameron had of Tory divisions being put to bed flew out the window. With May’s ascent into power the Conservatives became a Leave party and May’s government put everything but Brexit on hold. In 2017 she wanted a stronger hand in Parliament and in the negotiations and she called a general election. She lost but gained the support of the Democratic Unionist Party to cling to power. Now she is going, the Tories are facing up to some stark election results and the ensuing leadership battle seems to favour an arch Brexiteer.

The EU election results are so bad for the Tories they now have more leadership candidates than MEPs. The dumb money in Tory leadership candidates goes on the favourites. There are always surprises in Tory leadership battles. This will be the sixth such wretched battle that I’ve witnessed and I’m not sure who will win. There are currently nine candidates with a possible further five about to enter the contest. This first stage is posturing. A candidate needs the support of just two Tory MPs to be on the ballot. There are current candidates who are standing just to sound the parliamentary party out about their prospects. They key thing they get to do when they withdraw is that they can then put their support behind one of the candidates that remains, so some will want to be seen as being able to influence the final result and possibly secure themselves a place in the Cabinet. I think we will see candidates drop out before the first round of voting.

After each round of voting within the parliamentary party the candidate who came last is knocked out of the contest. Once there are two candidates left then those two are presented to the party membership. The 100,000 or so Conservative members then get to choose our new Prime Minister. The chances are that this small, mainly white, middle class, and old group of people will choose whoever is the toughest on Brexit. The Conservative Party does not want to be beaten by Farage or risk a diminished general election result.

All of this is an indication that we are in for months, if not years, of our lives being dominated by the arguing factions of the Conservative Party over Europe. The Brexiteers may win through but it remains to be seen whether that stops the infighting. Farage and the Brexit Party are calling for their inclusion in future negotiations on Brexit. Given recent history in this country it is likely that the Conservative Party cannot resist picking at the carbuncle so we can expect Farage to at least influence the direction of the Tories even if his new party has no negotiating role. Meanwhile life goes on.

Theresa May used her speech when she became Prime Minister to make a pitch regarding that quaint old term: one nation conservatism. The idea of Tories governing in the interests of everyone is counter-intuitive but it’s what the one nation ones believe. She was determined to help the ‘just about managing’. She was going to solve issues on race equality. She believed that Brexit was only one issue that needed to be addressed.

What she provided over her time in office was a hostile environment on immigration, the Windrush scandal and a pitiful response to Grenfell. The victims of Theresa May were all forgotten in the media when her voice broke at the end of her resignation speech. Suddenly we needed to be sympathetic to this evil woman who has spent years destroying the lives of so many people. She has gone out of her way to wreak havoc and chaos on people. She voted for all the austerity measures in the coalition government. In the week that the United Nations reports that poverty in the UK is ‘systematic and tragic’ we are supposed to feel sympathy.

We should not. To see a Prime Minister crumble over her hollow words showed the disparity between what she has done and the view she has of herself. The idea that she tried her best is no excuse. She tried her best and she succeeded in harming people. The truly tragic thing is that we will have another Tory Prime Minister soon and poverty will continue to be systemic. It doesn’t really matter who; they are all of Mrs May’s calibre when it comes to the effect we see in our communities and on our lives, our friends and family. Whoever it is will wreak havoc on us and I hate the fact that we seem destined to suffer under them and that Nigel Farage is the man that seems able to push them ever further towards the extremes.

Jon Bigger


Photo: UK Government, OGL 3