In the few days since Theresa May’s difficulties during her keynote speech at last week’s Conservative Party Conference, rumours have abounded as to how much longer she can remain in the role, suggesting that her premiership is teetering on a cliff edge. In fact, it is anything but.
It says a lot, that the only attempt at a rebellion was led by the comically inept Grant Shapps (as many commentators were quick to point out, one wonders how many of the names on Shapps’ “list” were his own alter egos…), and it is highly unlikely that any credible figure will emerge to depose May any time soon.
For the few Cabinet members who could provide a credible alternative to Theresa May, it makes absolutely no sense to try and take over right now.
David Davis? He’s seen first hand how difficult Brexit will be to actually deliver, so there’s absolutely no way he’d want to carry the can for the disaster.
Amber Rudd? Perhaps the Cabinet member best suited to being PM, but difficult to imagine her wanting to take up the job whilst simultaneously trying to defend a wafer thin majority in her own constituency, and given that she was an arch-remainer, she wouldn’t be a popular choice with the party membership.
Philip Hammond? Too boring!
And Boris? Well, given that his primary concern is polishing his own reputation he’d have no interest in the impossible task of trying to deliver his referendum promises — instead preferring to come in “save the day” when the damage has already been done.
And given that no rebellion is ever going to have one of these people as a figurehead, it is unlikely to have any real success.
The main reason for this, is that despite many Conservative MPs (likely including those listed above) feel that Theresa May leading them into the next election would be inadvisable, they are terrified of the civil war they’d precipitate by deposing her. Since the referendum, most of the commentary on party divisions has focused on the Labour Party, and the stark divisions between the Corbynites and the Blairites. In fact, the Conservative Party are as (if not more) divided — up to now at least they’ve just been better at hiding it.
Any leadership election would be bloody and completely tear the party apart. And after all that, the likely outcome would be Jacob Rees-Mogg winning the leadership — a surefire way to never win a General Election. It is laughable that some seem to think Rees-Mogg — an Old-Etonian whose views on social issues would have been considered old fashioned sixty years ago — the answer to the Conservative Party’s problems with young voters. But this is the guy who Tory activists will likely coalesce around, and as such moderates in the Party will have to find their own single candidate to avoid splitting the vote.
This candidate is unlikely to come to the fore until shortly before the next General Election (still scheduled for 2022), with some suggestion from Ruth Davidson that she may be open to the leadership post-2021.
Given this current situation, despite what it may look like, Theresa May’s position is actually pretty safe for now.
Despite this, Boris remains a danger. Although he won’t lead a rebellion, he’s likely to continue to cause trouble. May can’t sack him (although given his conduct as Foreign Secretary, this would be a perfectly proportionate response) as that would risk turning him into a martyr — already popular with the party membership, he’d use the sacking to manoeuvre himself into the leadership, and it’s always better to have your rivals inside the tent. Instead, she should reshuffle him, which May implied in interviews published today that she might be prepared to do. Demote him by moving him to Business, still sufficiently Brexity but with more to do, in the hope that this will prevent him from going off-piste quite so often — wading into other policy areas and causing damage. Do this, and May keeps herself safe.
Despite the current furore, things will quieten down soon. If the Cabinet want to get rid of May because of the election result, then the time to do so was immediately after the election — to back her immediately after the election only to stab her in the back a couple of months later would reflect very badly on the perpetrators in the long-run. Plus, no one wants to become Prime Minister, only to have to take responsibility of Brexit.
Although her position looks wobbly, at the moment it is anything but.
This week’s Conservative Party conference began with Theresa May pledging action on student fees and housing, pitched as a generous offer to young voters — long considered her party’s achilles heel.
First was a pledge to ‘freeze’ university tuition fees at £9,250 a year, a change from the policy announced earlier in the year to allow universities to increase fees by £250 a year. Calling this a ‘freeze’ is clearly taking positive spin to the extremes, as in reality it’s hard to see this as anything other than a u-turn. In any case, it’s generally accepted that the actual annual rate of tuition fees has little impact on deterring university applications from any background, and given that the vast majority of graduates never pay back the full amount anyway, it’s a change that will only be financially beneficial to the highest earners. This is just a cosmetic change in an attempt to compete with Jeremy Corbyn’s pledge to completely scrap tuition fees — a pledge that somewhat misses the point of the problem, which isn’t the existence of student loans (many people agree that students should pay something for further education and the subsequent increase in wages) but the steep repayments, and the seeming pointlessness of a system where loans are so high that almost no one can actually pay them off anyway.
But, what followed was the promise of a much more consequential (and welcome) change in policy — to increase the repayment threshold on student loans from £21,000 to £25,000. When the new system of student loans was originally brought in by the Coalition Government in 2012, one of the key parts of the policy was that the repayment threshold would rise (to account for inflation), but ultimately this was scrapped and the repayment threshold has remained at £21,000 for five years. Theresa May’s decision to increase it is a welcome one, and one which will actually have an appreciable impact.
On housing on the other hand, Theresa May pledged an extra £10bn for the Help to Buy scheme, which offers 20 percent equity loans to buyers of new builds worth up to £600,000.
This is a misguided policy decision. It is indeed true that many young people struggle to get on the housing ladder. And the PM is correct to pick it out as an issue she should look to address. But the problem is, in reality, one of a low supply of affordable housing (particularly in certain areas) and high demand.
As anyone with any knowledge of basic economics knows, if you pump money into increasing demand or purchasing power, without any attempt to address a fundamental problem of lack of supply, all you will succeed in doing is increasing prices. This change is therefore unlikely to have any real benefit for those struggling to afford a first property.
Additionally, the fact that Help to Buy is limited to new build properties causes further problems, making it more difficult for existing homeowners to sell their properties (and devaluing them in the process) and slowing the market down even further.
It is true that radical reform of housing is required and neither of the two main parties seem to have the answers. Jeremy Corbyn’s proposal for rent controls, announced at last week’s Labour Party Conference, also wouldn’t help. Whilst capping rents would reduce costs for some, there would be a concurrent reduction in housing supply as it would effectively kill the buy-to-let industry.
I confess that I do not know the answer to the problems of the housing market, but new and radical ideas are clearly needed.
It seems unlikely that they will arrive in this Parliament, where the Government has decided to be cautious on account of their lack of a parliamentary majority and the herculean task of implementing Brexit.
But really, Theresa May has a very real opportunity to attempt the radical reform to help the ‘just about managing’ that she promised when the first stood on the steps of Number 10 last summer. No one else in the Conservative Party has the stomach to carry the can for Brexit; so although Theresa May’s position as Prime Minister looks insecure, in fact it is anything but. This gives her an enviable opportunity to attempt radical reform. It’s is generally expected that she will lose the next election (although given that nothing seems certain in politics these days, I wouldn’t count on it), so she’s got nothing to lose. And by attempting radical reform of housing (and public services too), May could arguably save her premiership, rather than letting it become completely defined by Brexit.
On 25 October the Government announced that they would be supporting a third runway for Heathrow Airport. Following this announcement, Zac Goldsmith the MP for Richmond Park announced his resignation, triggering a by-election which will come to an conclusion on Thursday. Goldsmith was honouring a promise made during his first election campaign (when he defeated Liberal Democrat incumbent Susan Kramer in 2010) that he would resign his House of Commons seat were the Conservative Government to ever support a third runway, “no ifs, no buts”. Originally it seemed unlikely that Goldsmith would have to act upon this promise given that then Conservative leader David Cameron had said in 2009 that his future Government would not be supporting a third runway. However, when Cameron left his post in July the issue was back on the table, and Theresa May’s government approved the proposal for a new runway and terminal in October.
Goldsmith is standing again but this time as an Independent, and hoped to make the by-election solely about his opposition to the expansion of Heathrow — a stance supported by most of the constituency’s residents. His expectation was that he would be able to make a point about the expansion, and then get easily elected to Parliament once again without compromising his principles. Goldsmith has said that he would remain an independent for a “full term in Parliament”, but beyond that he has not ruled out rejoining the Conservatives.
However, in actual fact, the by-election has not been quite so simple for Goldsmith. Once the candidates were announced, it became apparent that all of the main candidates were against the expansion of Heathrow. In addition to Goldsmith himself, the Liberal Democrat candidate Sarah Olney is against expansion, as is the candidate for the Labour Party, Christian Wolmar. In addition, the Conservative Party ultimately declined to field a candidate against Goldsmith which has made his stance of standing against Government policy lose quite a lot of steam. With Goldsmith’s main rivals all agreeing with him on the issue of Heathrow, commentators (and voters) naturally looked for the issues which divided the candidates, with the most prominent of these being Brexit.
Goldsmith has long been an outspoken supporter of leaving the European Union, following on from the father James Goldsmith who founded and financed the Referendum Party in 1994. His opponents on the other hand were staunchly in favour of a Remain vote in June’s EU Referendum. As well as his opponents, his constitutents were also strongly in favour of remaining the the EU. London as a whole voted by 60–40 to remain in the EU, in Richmond Park the vote for remain was 69.3%. There is evidence that many of the voters in Richmond Park were concerned and angry about the Brexit stance of their otherwise popular local MP, and recent polling has reflected this. In late October, BMG research released polling where 25 percent of respondents identified Brexit as the most important issue in the upcoming by-election, compared t0 just 21 percent who identified Heathrow expansion as the most important issue. This suggests that Goldsmith has been outflanked somewhat, and the by-election has turned into a referendum on his stance on Brexit, as opposed to a ratification of his views on Heathrow.
As the holders of the Richmond Park parliamentary seat until 2010, it is reasonable to suggest the Liberal Democrat to be the closest challengers for this seat. Although, the Lib Dems were reduced to just eight House of Commons seat at the 2015 General Election, there have been recent signs of a resurgence in support with the Lib Dems attempting to court the votes of those who voted to remain in the EU by promising a second referendum, and pledging to vote against the triggering of Article 50 in Parliament. Nationwide I am not convinced that this is a good strategy for winning House of Commons seats, however in an area with such a high vote for Remain like Richmond Park there is a fairly decent chance that it will help the Lib Dems gain support. Similarly, in the by-election earlier this year for David Cameron’s old seat in Witney (another constituency which voted heavily in favour of remain) the Lib Dems experienced a surge in support (into second place), in part because the Conservative Party fielded a candidate who had campaigned in favour of a Leave vote. The Lib Dems are hoping that a similar strategy will help them here.
In their attempts to pigeonhole Goldsmith as a supporter of a ‘hard Brexit’ and defeat him this way, the Lib Dems have been inadvertently helped by UKIP. On 27 October, UKIP announced that they wouldn’t be fielding candidate in the by-election and instead chose to endorse Goldsmith — praising him for the stance on Brexit, among other things. As well reminding voters of Goldsmith’s support for Brexit, this perhaps also served to remind them of the divisive campaign that he waged against Sadiq Khan in the London Mayoral Election in May. The Lib Dems have used this endorsement to their advantage by printing imitation newspapers with Nigel Farage on the front page, and suggesting that he has personally endorsed Goldsmith. In an area where Farage is clearly not going to be the most popular guy around, this kind of thing will almost certainly have an affect. Clearly Goldsmith has recognised that his stance on Brexit is having an adverse affect on his campaign as he used a recent interview with The Independent to register his opposition to Theresa May challenging the Article 50 vote decision in the Supreme Court, and to make it clear that he supported a House of Commons vote on the triggering of Article 50.
Early signs suggest that making the campaign about Brexit has had an extremely negative affect on Goldsmith’s attempts to retain his seat, although having said this it seems that with just under a week to go he still has just enough support to be confident of retaining the seat on Thursday. Polling leaked from the Liberal Democrat campaign suggests 46.7 percent, less than the 58.2 percent he won in the 2015 General Election. Meanwhile, Liberal Democrat support has jumped to 43.3 percent, well up from the 19.3 percent they won in 2015 and within touching distance of Goldsmith.
Ironically, were Goldsmith to win and retain his seat, it is the Conservative Party’s decision not to stand a candidate that will have saved him. Although this decision was perhaps understandable given the expectation that Goldsmith would rejoin the Conservatives at some point, as well as the high likelihood that a Conservative candidate would have split the vote, it still means that Goldsmith’s decision to call a by-election in order to stand against his own party was basically pointless. Equally, however, you could argue that the decision of the Labour Party to stand a candidate will have cost the Liberal Democrats the seat. Leading Labour MPs Clive Lewis, Lisa Nandy, and Jonathan Reynolds had urged Labour to refrain from fielding a candidate in order to have the best chance of unseating Goldsmith, however the party disagreed and fielded Wolmar, a candidate with no chance of winning but who will likely cost the Lib Dems a fair few votes.
What seems clear is that this by-election is set to go down to the wire. More so than the Witney by-election earlier in the year, the result in this vote will be of real significance to the ongoing debate over Brexit. Were Goldsmith to retain his seat, Theresa May could use the result as tacit consent amongst those who voted remain for the pursuit of a ‘hard Brexit”, but were Olney to defeat him, then this would serve to increase the growing divides that have been evident within the electorate since the referendum.
At the weekend Nigel Farage and his group of hangers-on travelled to New York to visit President-elect Donald Trump. Among the group was millionaire UKIP and Leave.EU donor Arron Banks. Clearly the visit had some effect upon him because he has since announced his plans to launch a new political party solely dedicated to ‘draining the swamp’ of Westminster.
Banks has suggested that he will be funding a new movement which will look to stand candidates against 200 MPs deemed to be the “worst, most corrupt MPs”. His aim is to harness the ‘anti-establishment sentiment’ which he believes is sweeping through world politics, and which has led to Brexit and the election of Donald Trump.
The idea is modelled somewhat upon the candidacy of Martin Bell, a BBC journalist who stood against disgraced Conservative MP Neil Hamilton in the 1997 General Election, ultimately winning his seat of Tatton. Incidentally Hamilton is now, like Banks, a member of UKIP.
Banks has suggested that the targets will be chosen by some form of direct democracy, however he does seem to have some ideas about who he would like to get rid of. He has said that he would rate MPs by undesirability with “Keith Vaz at number one”, whilst a picture released on the Leave.EU twitter page also suggests prominent Remain campaigners Nick Clegg, Anna Soubry, and David Lammy as targets. One would assume that UKIP’s only MP, Douglas Carswell, for whom Banks doesn’t conceal his contempt, would also be a target for the new party.
Banks’ new party won’t take party positions in the traditional sense, however he has suggested some causes that they would likely support, including: “forcing through a change of the rules so that MPs can only hold office for two terms, abolition of the House of Lords and pushing for an elected senate, and insisting on a lower age limit of 40 for MPs to stop career politicians.”
Now I get that Banks wants to harness some of the hateful rhetoric that came from the Trump campaign for the Presidency, and bring it into UK politics. However, I have some questions about how he thinks he can achieve this.
Firstly, Banks’ attempt to unseat MPs is modelled somewhat on the one-term independent candidacy of Martin Bell, and its success in unseating Neil Hamilton in 1997. Whilst Bell was successful in unseating Hamilton and won the seat with a majority of 11,077, this was in part because of a plan masterminded by Alastair Campbell where he arranged for both Labour and the Liberal Democrats to withdraw their candidates for Tatton so as not to split the anti-Hamilton vote. Banks wouldn’t have this advantage. In most seats he’d face the Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats, Green Party, and UKIP; whilst in some he may also face the Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru — therefore splitting the vote even further. Therefore, the likelihood of one of his candidates being successful in gaining election is very, very low.
Secondly, Banks suggests he wants to field, “a great candidate, a military guy, doctor, someone who has done something with their life.” However, the chances of him finding 200 candidates that fit this description, and who are also willing to stand on a platform created by someone like Banks (who was a key part of the racist Leave.EU campaign), seem very slim to me. What’s more, Bank’s suggests an upper age limit of forty for MPs. Therefore, quite how he expects to find 200 candidates with amazing life experience, who are also under forty, and are also willing to stand on a platform created by him, is beyond me. Overall, the likelihood of him finding the personnel to complete this ridiculous pet project seems to be very slim indeed.
Thirdly, this project by Banks is an attempt to ride the populist wave from Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. However, Theresa May still insists that the next general election won’t be until 2020, by which time Brexit will be four years in the past and Donald Trump will be struggling to be re-elected. Populism in politics seems to be something which moves extremely quickly, and who knows what its status will be in four years time. My guess is that voters will have long grown tired of the non-solutions offered by populist politicians.
Finally, some of the suggestions which Banks has put forward as issues which his new party might support just don’t seem workable to me. In the previous paragraph I mentioned the proposal of an upper age limit of forty for MPs, but there is also the insistence that each MP should be limited to just two terms in the House of Commons. Although this might sound good when he says it too himself, it just wouldn’t work. With Parliamentary terms being a maximum of five years long, we would never have a Prime Minister with more than ten years experience as an MP — this would not be good for governance in this country. Our last Prime Minister, David Cameron, took office as PM after serving as an MP for nine years. Most of his predecessors had served for much longer: Gordon Brown for twenty-four years, Tony Blair for fourteen years, John Major for twenty-one years, and Margaret Thatcher for twenty years; and the list goes on. I am confident that none of these people could have done the job of Prime Minister after less than two terms as an MP, and I don’t think that the British public would have let them do the job of Prime Minister without this experience. What’s more, I think that it is extremely unlikely that someone could come in with no experience of the workings of Parliament and simply become Prime Minister. For all the talk of Donald Trump’s lack of political experience being a virtue, there have been reports that President Obama is having to spend extra sessions with Trump before the inauguration because his knowledge of government is so lacking. Realistically, to ask someone with no knowledge to do the job of Prime Minister straightaway seems a non-starter to me.
Ultimately, this is pretty typical from Banks, a ridiculous idea attempting to get some publicity and massage his ego — all whilst bringing the likes of Nigel Farage and himself further into the limelight than anyone wants them to be. In an entertaining article from earlier today, Iain Martin describes Banks’ new party as, “The Stupid Party”. That seems like a pretty good name to me.
On 23 June, the UK voted to leave the European Union on the back of a successful campaign from Vote Leave which emphasised taking back control and regaining sovereignty from the European Union. Indeed Vote Leave’s slogan was ‘Take Back Control’, and the likes of Boris Johnson and Michael Gove repeated this phrase endlessly throughout the campaign, it seemed to be the answer to every question posed of them.
Alas, when the UK judiciary did take back control last week, those on the Leave side of the debate were not best pleased.
Last week, High Court judges ruled that Parliament had to have a vote on the triggering of Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the article which starts the process of withdrawing from the EU and which has to be triggered before any formal discussions can begin between the UK Government and the EU on a trade deal amongst other things. Theresa May and her Government felt that they should be able to choose when to trigger Article 50 themselves, and has such they have suggested that they will be appealing the High Court’s decision in the Supreme Court in due course.
The result of this court case led to huge anger from Leave campaigners like Nigel Farage, Iain Duncan-Smith, Suzanne Evans, and of couse The Daily Mail, all of whom cried (as they always seem to) that the ruling amounted to some sort of establishment stitch up.
However, wasn’t this exactly what they wanted?!
Their whole campaign to Leave the EU (which in economic terms was nonsensical) rested on the idea that the UK’s sovereignty was being impeded by the European Union. So you would think that there would be some pleasure in seeing UK Courts taking control of the situation.
But no, all we got was anger and even a suggestion from UKIP Leadership candidate Suzanne Evans that we should end the independence of the judiciary, with judges being elected to their positions — what a disaster that would likely turn out to be.
I suppose ‘Take Back Control So Long As The Decisions Made Are In Our Interest” wasn’t catchy enough for the big red battle bus.
What Leave voters need to understand (and very few of them seem to) is that the court case is not about stopping Brexit, indeed the vast majority of those who voted to Remain accept the result of the referendum. Full disclosure: I voted Remain myself, and was strongly in favour of remaining. Although I am still of the opinion that the referendum should never have been called it ultimately was, and I am willing to accept the result. However, just because the Leave campaign won, doesn’t mean that the views of the 48 percent who voted Remain should be completely ignored, we should be seeking some sort of consensus in order to unite the country. Equally, amongst the 52 percent who voted Leave, many voted for completely different things. Some voted to completely withdraw from Europe and all its institutions, some voted purely to retake Parliamentary sovereignty in terms of legislation, some voted purely to reduce immigration, many voted to leave the EU but still harboured a desire to remain inside the Single Market — including former Conservative MP Stephen Phillips who resigned on Friday.
Yes, the public have voted to Leave the European Union, but that does not mean we should just Leave straight away without the Government even thinking about it first. In my mind, there is surely no better way to do this than to put the issue to Parliament, to individuals who deal with complex legislation every day.
In addition, it is important for the electorate to now where the government stands on negotiating a deal with the European Union — where the government’s ‘red line’ is, so to speak. Given that Theresa May hasn’t been elected as Prime Minister, this is even more important. Yes, I know that technically we have a Parliamentary system where we don’t elect the Prime Minister, however I personally think that the vast majority of people cast their vote based in large part upon the party leaders who are the prospective Prime Ministers.
On this basis, it seems right that the government should call an early election in order to gauge public opinion about what sort of Brexit the electorate wants. For the government to go into negotiations in effect blind, means that there will definitely be a vast majority of UK citizens who feel disappointed with the results — likely including many who voted Leave on June 23.
As for those Leave campaigners who are still criticising the judges who made last week’s decision, they are playing a very dangerous game. As one of the more sensible Leave campaigners, journalist Iain Martin wrote in The Observer on Sunday: “we could try electing judges, or ordering judges to disregard and ignore the rule of law on the order of politicians, but the international historical precedents do not suggest it ever ends well.” Those Leave campaigners should stop to discredit and promote the illegitimacy of these judges. For them to continue to do so could be hugely harmful to the rule of law in this country.
They should remember that the decision is not a stitch up which aims to stop Brexit, but it is simply the court ensuring that Parliament plays its rightful role in the process, by providing a check to the government’s power.
The GOP has been totally split by this election, failure to reconcile its warring factions could result in its demise.
The campaign for the Republican nominee for President began in earnest on 23 March 2015, when Texas Senator Ted Cruz announced that he would be seeking the Republican nomination for President. One by one, other high-profile Republicans began to announce that they too would seek the nomination, including the likes of Jeb! Bush, Marco Rubio, John Kasich, Chris Christie, Rand Paul, Mike Huckabee, Scott Walker, and Lindsey Graham. In total, seventeen major candidates campaigned for the nomination, making it the largest single field in United States Presidential primary history.
Of course the ultimate winner of this process, and the person who I have deliberately chosen to refrain from mentioning just yet, was businessman and reality-television star Donald J. Trump.
When Trump announced his campaign for the Republican nomination with a press conference at Trump Tower, New York on 16 June 2015, few foresaw his victory, and even fewer foresaw the impact that Donald Trump would have on the wider Republican Party.
The nomination of Donald Trump as the Republican nominee highlighted a huge fissure in the Republican Party between much of the party elite (Senators, Congressmen and women, and Governors) and the Republican base. Time after time, comments by Donald Trump were disavowed by senior Republicans, but party members kept on voting for him. There was seemingly nothing that those in Washington D.C. could do to stop the Trump Train, with establishment candidates like Jeb! Bush, Marco Rubio, and John Kasich unable to conjure any answer at all to the Trump surge.
This means that we have an election coming up in November where the candidate at the top of the ticket (Trump) is running on a hugely different platform to many of the Republicans lower down the ticket, who are running for seats in Congress, or on State Legislatures. It seems clear that the Republican Party is hugely divided, which isn’t going to help when it comes to competing in subsequent elections.
Now, all ostensibly ‘big-tent’ parties face internal divisions, and it isn’t this which is the problem. Divisions can exist within parties, as long as these divisions are reconciled to the extent that the party avoids a full blown civil war. We have seen this in the United Kingdom with the takeover of the Labour Party by Jeremy Corbyn, causing a civil war between his faction and the so-called ‘Blairites’. Meanwhile, the governing Conservative Party are able to continue increasing their support, despite huge divisions of their own, simply because they prioritise power ahead of internal squabbles. The same is often true in the United States. The Democratic Primary Campaign showed that the Democrats also faced significant internal divisions, with the left-wing Bernie Sanders gaining huge support in his attempt at beating Hillary Clinton to the nomination. However, once Clinton won the nomination, the Democrats put much of this squabbling behind them because they recognised that winning the Presidency was more important than an ideologically pure political party.
The Republicans have manifestly failed to do this, and the Trump campaign can count on one hand the number of senior GOP lawmakers who are actively campaigning for him around the country. This is for a good reason, Trump has done absolutely nothing to gain the support of the party elite, and has instead chosen to shun them at every available opportunity by regularly making disparaging remarks about people like Jeb! Bush, John McCain, and Speaker of the House of Representatives Paul Ryan. On the Democratic side, the Clinton campaign recognised the need to reach out to Bernie Sanders and those who supported him during the primaries, with the result being that Sanders has campaigned around the country on her behalf, leading to a much more comfortable election campaign. Trump on the other hand failed to do this, meaning that throughout the campaign he has been fighting on two frontiers: against the Democrats, and against the Republican Party elite. Given this situation, it is perhaps a miracle that he remains somewhat in contention for the Presidency at this late stage.
This being said, it remains unlikely that Donald Trump will win the Presidency next week. This leaves the Republican Party at a crossroads, where failure to choose the right path could easily result in the demise of the Grand Old Party — at least in the sense of the party being unable to compete for the Presidency.
In the Republican Party, this crossroads comprises two very distinct factions. One the one side, you have the moderates, the wing of the party which has dominated the Republican Party throughout most of its existence, particularly at the Presidential level. On the other side, you have what we’ll call the ‘Trumpists’, a movement which has effectively morphed out of the Tea Party movement which has come to the forefront of the Republican Party within the last ten years.
Assuming that Trump loses on 8 November, there are many from the moderate wing of the party who will feel that the Trump experiment has come to an end, and that they will be able to return to something resembling their prior more moderate ideology. However, this will be far easier said than done. The rhetoric emanating from Trump over the course of the campaign is that the election, and indeed the whole political system, is rigged. Therefore, Trump supporters are being primed to not accept the result of next week’s election. If this is the case, and Trump’s most keen supporters refuse to accept the result in significant numbers, then rebuilding the Republican Party of old could prove almost impossible.
The difficulties that the Republican Party face today have been a long time coming, with the grounds for these difficulties perhaps being set in 1980 when the Republicans returned to presidential power with Ronald Reagan.
This was done with an almost completely different electoral coalition than that which usually supported the Republicans, with Reagan’s supporters encompassing many evangelical Christians and white working-class ex-Democrats. These new party members were in sharp contrast to the existing pro-business conservatives who made up the Republican Party. More recently, these divisions have been manifested in the rise of the Tea Party movement, which mostly occurred during the 2010 midterms, although it could be said that the 2008 selection of Sarah Palin as John McCain’s running-mate also helped to usher the Tea Party onto the national stage.
With the emergence of the Tea Party, the moderate wing of the GOP effectively lost control of the primary process. This has led to many Tea Party backed candidates winning Republican primaries and then getting trounced by their Democratic opponents in Congressional races (remember Christine O’Donnell?), although this being said there have also been many Tea Party backed candidates who have made it into Congress due to their standing in safe Republican seats. One of the most notable of these was Tea Party candidate Dave Brat who challenged then Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor for his Congressional seat in Virginia in a primary prior to the 2014 midterms. In a huge upset, Brat defeated Cantor 55.5%-44.5%, and with this Cantor became the first ever House Majority Leader to lose his seat in a primary challenge.
The Tea Party takeover of the Republican Party, particularly in terms of their House of Representatives group, caused huge problems for the moderate party elite. It was effectively this that caused the resignation of Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner, with the Tea Party wing kicking up a huge fuss if Boehner so much as considered compromise with President Obama and the Democrats. This led to the Republican Party being forced to shift further to the right of the ideological spectrum in order to appease the Tea Party faction, and by extension the grassroots of the party. This has culminated in the election of Donald Trump as the Republican candidate for President, and what is effectively an existential crisis for the Republican Party.
Given that this Tea Party wing of the party is totally unelectable on the national stage then the answer would seem pretty straightforward. If asked the question: which way should the Republican Party go? then you would expect any rational person to suggest that they go the way of the moderates, i.e. those who have some chance of winning the Presidency. However, it is not that simple. Those who vote in the Republican primaries are the party grassroots, and as I said previously this group are on a completely different wavelength ideologically to those in the moderate wing of the party. It is these in the party grassroots who are relied upon to campaign when it comes around to elections, and so to a certain extent it is very important to be able to keep them onside. In addition, the problem is further complicated by the Conservative ideologues who populate the likes of Fox News, Breitbart, and Conservative talk radio. It is these individuals who effectively control much of the modern Republican Party and to whom Republican politicians are forced to pander if they wish to appeal to their grassroots supporters, indeed the Chief Executive of Donald Trump’s Presidential campaign is Stephen Bannon who is on leave from Breitbart for the duration of the campaign. The likes of Fox News commentator Sean Hannity, and radio hosts Rush Limbaugh, Alex Jones, and Laura Ingraham have been particularly keen backers of Trump, and it is these people who set the tone in the modern Republican Party.
This group could soon include Trump himself, if he launches ‘Trump TV’. It has been suggested that his son-in-law and de-facto campaign manager, Jared Kushner, has been attempting to drum up support for this, although naturally when asked Kushner denied it. In any case, the Conservative media will go a long way to deciding which way the Republican Party goes. It seems extremely unlikely that following a Donald Trump loss, they will simply roll over and allow the moderates to take back the party. If anything, it is more likely for the Tea Party wing of the GOP to blame to moderates, and suggest that the party needs to shift even further right.
In short, there seems little chance that the two factions of the Republican Party will reconcile. What this means, is that they could instead split.
The possibility of a split in the party has been suggested by several high-profile moderate Republicans, perhaps most notably by Steve Schmidt who was a key advisor on George W. Bush’s 2004 re-election campaign, and who managed John McCain’s 2008 campaign for the Presidency. In an interview with Vox, Schmidt said:
I think the Republican Party has an outstanding chance of fracturing. There will be the alt-right party; then there will be a center-right conservative party that has an opportunity to reach out, repair damage, and rebuild the brand over time. America, ideologically right now, is a centrist country — it used to be a center-right country — but it’s by no means a Bernie Sanders country. Not even close. The market will demand a center-right party.
There seems little doubt that a split like this would indeed be possible. If someone with no knowledge of American politics were to compare the views espoused by Donald Trump during his Presidential campaign with the views of some moderate Republicans, perhaps Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona and Senator Mark Kirk of Illinois, then it would be unlikely that they’d guess that Trump was technically part of the same party as Flake and Kirk. This means that the landscape is ripe for a split, and it seems unlikely that either of the two factions would be particularly adverse to this outcome. Indeed, the aforementioned Flake has himself said that if the Republican Party doesn’t undergo a dramatic shift in policy and tone then they will consign themselves to “political oblivion”. Given that the grassroots supporters of the Republican Party won’t tolerate this kind of policy change, a split seems the only option.
However, the problem with a split is that it would be highly likely that it would end the possibility of a Republican being elected as President for a generation. The first-past-the-post electoral college system for electing the US President means that third-parties have almost no chance at all of gaining electoral votes. The effect of the Republican Party splitting would be that their vote would also be split, making a Republican President an impossibility.
A split would likely consign the Republican Party (and any new party) to the electoral dustbin. If the Republican Party is serious about winning the Presidency then it needs to unite and reconcile the more conservative wing of the party with the moderate wing. Because running on a moderate platform is the only way to win the Presidency. This particularly the case in modern America where demographic changes mean that the electoral map is skewed more and more in favour of the Democratic Party. The likes of Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Colorado tend to be touted as swing states, however statistically it looks as though it would be fair to classify these states as safe Democratic. Even Texas, once the bastion of Republican support, is turner bluer every year thanks to a rapidly increasing Hispanic population flexing its political muscles. These changes are making it more and more difficult for even a moderate Republican Party to win the Presidency, meaning that an ‘alt-right’/Tea Party Republican Party has absolutely no chance of national success.
As the aforementioned Steve Schmidt has said: “there’s no question that Republicans — as an institution and what we’re led by — are unfit to run the country, or to govern the country.” And he’s absolutely right. For rational, moderate voters, the Democrats are the only option. For liberals like myself this is great at first glance, but history shows that a lack of credible political opposition isn’t good for anyone, and ultimately leads to inefficient government.
For the Republicans the task is simple, they must take a more moderate path and stop obsessing about settled social issues that don’t concern the wider electorate. Failure to appeal to the wider election will result in the demise of the party of Lincoln, which is still affectionately known as the Grand Old Party.
Yesterday, the residents of Witney cast their votes in a by-election to decide who would succeed former Prime Minister David Cameron as the constituency’s Member of Parliament. As a safe Conservative seat, Witney was rated the tenth safest Conservative seat following the 2015 General Election, the result of this by-election was never really in doubt. However, what everyone was watching for was how Theresa May’s new Conservative Party would do in David Cameron’s old constituency; and in the first electoral test following the EU Referendum, how would the opposition parties fare.
As expected, the Conservative Party retained the seat, with Councillor Robert Courts winning 17,313 votes for a majority of 5,702. However, although this seems like a comfortable win, when compared to the result in this constituency in the 2015 General Election, it is anything but.
In the 2015 General Election, David Cameron won a huge 35,201 votes, which led to a very safe majority of 25,155. Admittedly given that this was only a by-election, and that the country at large is suffering from electoral fatigue, the turnout was quite low (just 46.8% compared to 73.3% in 2015). However, it is the percentage of the vote which is significant. In 2015, David Cameron won 60.2% of the votes in Witney. Yesterday, Robert Courts won just 45%, a huge fall from 2015.
The main cause of this has been attributed to a surge in support for the Liberal Democrats who won just 6.8% of the vote in 2015, but managed to increase this to 30.2% yesterday. This resurgence tallies with the Liberal Democrats’ surge in party membership following the EU Referendum, where they were the only party to come out in favour of a second referendum. Party figures suggested that in the days after the referendum, the Liberal Democrats gained 15,000 new members, and their membership has continued to grow since. This is perhaps due to a combination of reasons, but chief among these is the Lib Dems pro-European stance, as well as the centrists who supported the Conservatives in 2015, flocking to a different party due to dissatisfaction with the more right-wing new Government.
Given that Witney is a constituency which voted 53.7% in favour of remaining in the European Union, and the Conservative candidate Robert Courts supported Vote Leave, the Liberal Democrats made a big thing about their pro-European stance in this referendum, and it appeared to pay dividends as they surged past Labour into second place.
This huge swing of 19.3% to the Lib Dems could statistically wipe out the current Conservative majority in the House of Commons were to it be replicated across the country. Statistically speaking there are twenty-six seats where the Conservative advantage over the Liberal Democrats is less than this, and where they could therefore prosper in a general election. Of course, we must consider the fact that the Liberal Democrats absolutely threw the kitchen sink at this by-election in a way that would be impossible in a full on general election. Party Leader Tim Farron made five visits to Witney over the course of the by-election campaign. In a full general election campaign there is no chance that he would have the time to do this, and in addition the Liberal Democrats would not be able to commit as many party staff to a single constituency.
However, the result of this by-election is telling in several ways. Given how the Conservative have underperformed relative to their polling numbers, it shows that the Government isn’t nearly as popular as polling has suggested, and that the Government’s current haphazard handling of Brexit has lost them some support. In addition, it further shows the malaise affecting the Labour Party, which has the potential to lose them their place as the main parliamentary opposition. Labour suffered a significant reduction in their share of the vote, falling back into third place. It is realistic to suggest that many centrist or left of centre voters who may typically have voted Labour in this by-election, were put off my the way Jeremy Corbyn has dragged the party to the left, and so instead cast their vote in favour of the Lib Dems.
Overall, this result suggests the Theresa May is not as close to the political centre as she seems to think. Whether voters are put off my the government’s handling of Brexit, or whether it is policies like the expansion of grammar schools which is causing the problem, we don’t know. But what is certain is that Theresa May has to do a lot more to appeal to the centre if she wants to be Prime Minister in the long term. This is something David Cameron did particularly well, moving the Conservatives away from the divisive policies which resonated with their base, and instead moving them toward the political centre. By bringing back policies like grammar schools, Theresa May has done the opposite, and this could cost her dearly in the polls.
Senior Conservatives have suggested that the result is not so bad, because it was pretty much the same as what David Cameron was getting in his early days as an MP. This is true, David Cameron did also receive 45% of the vote in Witney in the 2001 General Election. However, they should consider the overall result of this election, which resulted in a huge Labour majority. Given that the share of the vote in safe seats often indicates the level of nationwide support for a party, the Conservatives should be very worried about this result. If they are only getting the same share of the vote that they got at a general election in which they suffered a devastating defeat, then what will the result be nationwide when a general election is next held?
Conservatives can perhaps take comfort from the unelectability and unpopularity of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, but they should by no means think that this guarantees them an increased majority at the next general election. With a current working majority of just sixteen, the government can’t afford to lose many seats, and so they should not be ignoring the significance of this result. The Liberal Democrats definitely have the potential to cause them serious harm in a general election.
In this by-election, the Liberal Democrats made a great play out of the fact that Witney voted Remain, yet the Conservative candidate had supported Leave. There are many other constituencies where the same is true, and the Lib Dems can use this to gain an advantage at a general election. Perhaps a better test than Witney of whether this surge will be replicated is the by-election which is probably forthcoming in Richmond Park, where Leave backing MP Zac Goldsmith is expected to resign and stand as an independent due to opposition to expansion of Heathrow Airport. This is a seat which the Liberal Democrats held from the seat’s inception in 1997 until 2010, and it is not beyond the realms of possibility that they could win it back in a by-election.
In any case, yesterday’s by election should give Theresa May food for thought. Although she has been keen to say that she doesn’t want to hold an early election, it is looking increasingly like she is going to have to. If this week’s House of Commons vote for chairof the Brexit Select Committee is any indication, MPs may not vote in favour of the government’s EU repeal bill. In this select committee vote, MPs overwhelmingly voted for Remain backing Hilary Benn to chair to committee as opposed to Leave supporter Kate Hoey. Were the government to lose this vote, it would effectively be a tacit vote of no-confidence in the government. This would allow Theresa May to call and early election under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. It is only then that we will see just how much the political landscape has been altered as a result of the EU Referendum. One thing’s for sure, as the Liberal Democrats’ candidate for Witney, Liz Leffman, said last night: “The Liberal Democrats are definitely back in business”.