A Bit of Neither
An electoral mandate, Theresa May keeps saying, will 'strengthen her hand' in the Brexit talks. The bigger her mandate, we're led to think, the stronger her hand. This is performative affirmation: the oftener it's said, the truer it becomes. Or does it? On election night, will the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, be nervously eyeing the returns from Billericay, poised to fold if it clocks up a Tory swing? It seems unlikely.
Suppose, as seems likely, that May bags a majority of more than 100. A few swivel-eyed Brexiter Tories, such as John Redwood and Iain Duncan Smith, whose constituencies voted Remain, may lose their seats. But in the current fast-tracked process of candidate selection, new MPs are likely to come from the ranks of those who intone the new creed of bigger, cleaner, harder. Beleaguered Europhiles such as Ken Clarke and Anna Soubry hang on, but the drunks, once a few oddballs in the snug, have taken over the boozer and, now the house isn’t tied to Brussels, promise free beer for all.
And yet, there's a Remainer-consoling idea that May has gone to the country so that she'll have a bigger majority to secure parliamentary approval of the Brexit deal when it yields more to Brussels than her backbench zealots would like on such matters as the rights of EU citizens in the UK and the divorce bill. It’s quite possible that May had no thoughts at all about this. But even if she did, it's already come unstuck, as she finds herself having to be seen not to kowtow to Johnny Eurocrat. The row over last week's dinner with Jean-Claude Juncker has dragged May into full Britannia pose, as her statement from Downing Street after getting the dissolution from the queen showed – no deal's better than a bad deal, strong 'n' stable, rhubarb rhubarb. It's all a hostage not to fortune, but to predictable political fact. If May's hand is indeed strengthened, it will be her right hand.
Labour continues to resemble a driverless car. It's mildly impressive that it keeps going at all, but you wouldn't want to be in there. And when someone – Diane Abbott, say – does take the wheel, it's a Grand Theft Auto mega-shunt. Jeremy Corbyn's absence fills the cockpit. Maybe he's decided to take a back seat after failing to call May's bluff by having Labour abstain on the Commons vote to dissolve Parliament, and tabling a no-confidence motion – which would have left May needing her own MPs to back it to give her an election. Maybe most Labour MPs – as in studies which show that more than 90 per cent of academics rate themselves as above average teachers – think they'll somehow be spared. Or they don't, but see the election as a suicide-bombing sortie against Corbyn.
When its manifesto launches next week, it looks, from what Keir Starmer said last Tuesday, as if Labour will go Brexit-lite, with a definite 'maybe' on customs union to make themselves look different from the Tories. The number of votes this is likely to add is somewhere in the region of zero, even before taking account of how many they are likely to lose. Labour could try to make a 'Lexit' case to stop its pro-Leave supporters splitting to the Tories (a prime aim of May's election strategy); or try to oppose a hard Brexit in the hope of stopping its pro-Remain voters splitting to the Lib Dems. As it is, Labour's plan seems to be to do a bit of neither.
There's another five weeks of this. Let's all have another drink.