Jeremy Corbyn, Prime Minister. This used to be one of the Tories’ favourite lines. They thought that just to say it out loud was to expose its absurdity. The strategic debate within the Tory party was over whether to attack Corbyn himself, or to use him to contaminate the whole Labour brand. But Corbyn has transformed that brand, not damaged it. He has successfully fused together a Social Democratic party with a radical left one.
Labour conference this week was the gathering of a movement that thinks it is close to power; just look at the disciplined way delegates justified the decision not to debate Brexit, on the grounds that it would just have created divisions. Having polled 40 per cent in June and seen its share of the vote soar, Labour thinks it will win next time. Party activists draw strength from the fact that they can outgun the Conservatives on the ground almost everywhere. As one Tory MP lamented to me, they think they are doing well if they can cajole a few dozen souls out for a day’s campaigning. Labour can get hundreds of activists out without even breaking sweat.
Corbyn is now the bookies’ favourite to be the next prime minister. He has Theresa May to thank for this change in his fortunes. It was her decision to call an early election that allowed him to turn things around. Up to this point, Corbyn — for all his grassroots adulation — had been a bit of a Westminster joke: 172 of his own MPs had previously declared that they had no confidence in him. But his internal critics, who wanted to ensure there was no stab-in-the-back narrative, stayed silent this time. Corbyn was free to fight a campaign where low expectations worked in his favour.
Helped by Tory divisions, Corbyn has consolidated his position since the election. Voters have hardly recoiled on realising how close to power he is. Instead, Labour is still polling at 40 per cent or above.
Yet some Conservatives confidently claim that we have already passed ‘Peak Corbyn’. One of those who ran the Tory campaign argues that next time, voters will take the prospect of him winning more seriously. So they’ll be far more worried about what he would mean for their family finances, the risk of a run on the pound and all the other chaos that he could bring. They also argue that at the last election, people felt it was safe to vote Labour to back a local candidate, or to stick two fingers up at the Tories, as there was so little chance of Corbyn reaching No. 10. That too will be different next time. How many of the 39 per cent of Financial Times readers who voted Labour at the last election really want John McDonnell in charge of the economy?
But the real danger is that the Tories might have vaccinated Corbyn. By botching their attacks, they may have given him immunity. When they point to all his hard-left positions, his dodgy economics and his sympathy for various terrorist groups, voters might just shrug and say: ‘We’ve heard it all before.’ At the same time, Corbyn sounds very different to how he did two years ago. Voters tuning into him for the first time will find his agenda presented in a far more seductive and less sectarian way.
What makes this all so alarming is that it would be hard to think of a worse moment in Britain’s history to have a far-left prime minister. It’s often forgotten that what matters far more than Britain’s Brexit deal is what we do afterwards. If we go down the Corbyn route, foreign investors will not stick around. This country’s strengths as an open, dynamic economy with a flexible labour market will vanish and a new generation of Tories will begin to understand why so many on the centre-right in the 1970s and 1980s were prepared to trade sovereignty as a hedge against Bennite economics.
Liberated from the constraints of the single market, John McDonnell would have a freer hand than any Labour chancellor in decades. He could subsidise industries and renationalise companies in ways that would reverse the whole Thatcher/Blair settlement. Taking the railways back into state control, for instance, would inevitably be challenged under EU law if Britain were still in the single market. One of the reasons Tony Benn was so opposed to the European project and Corbyn has such a solidly Eurosceptic voting record is that they saw it all as a capitalist conspiracy that would stop socialism at home.
It is not just Brexit that makes this such a bad time to have a far-left government. We are living in an era of technological disruption and a Corbyn government would certainly not be on the side of the consumer. Look at how even the moderate Labour Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has backed TfL’s ban on the taxi service Uber. Britain’s future as one of the technology capitals of the world would disappear.
Given such high stakes, why can’t the Tories unite? With the country facing an existential crisis and Corbyn the most likely successor to May, you’d have thought the party could pull itself together. But there are structural reasons preventing this.
Even after Theresa May’s speech in Florence, we don’t know what she wants the final relationship between Britain and the EU to be. So the cabinet battle continues. To the Brexiteers led by Boris Johnson, it is obvious that there is no point in leaving the EU only to cling to it as closely as possible. But to Philip Hammond and the Treasury, the imperative is to maintain current arrangements for as long as possible.
It is hard to see how these two sides can be reconciled. May must be prepared to disappoint one of them. And because Hammond’s side of the argument is backed by Whitehall’s two most powerful institutions, the Treasury and the Cabinet Office, the Brexiteers believe that they have to create outside pressure to win these battles. Thus arguments are likely to play out in public more often than No. 10 would like — and voters do not reward divided parties.
Even on areas of domestic policy where the cabinet agree, there is little sense of urgency. The Tories risk repeating their manifesto mistake of acknowledging problems, then coming up with solutions that are clearly inadequate to their scale.
It is past time for proper radicalism on housing. As Noel Skelton identified in these pages back in 1923, the concept of a ‘property–owning democracy’ is the best bulwark against socialism. This means that the Tories need to be reversing the fall in home ownership before the next election. The only sure way to do that is for the state to grant itself planning permission on land it already owns and get the houses built. But there is no sign yet of the Tories being prepared to embrace this kind of thinking.
Then there is the leadership question. When Tory MPs returned from their summer break, consensus had broken out. Mrs May would continue until Brexit was done, and then go. But that truce is breaking down. As May’s senior cabinet ally, Damian Green, makes clear on page 16, the Mayites really do think she can fight and win the next election. If she won’t step down, Tory MPs will have to remove their leader — always a messy business and rarely popular with the public.
The more profound problem is that there is no obvious choice to replace her. The cabinet split over Brexit makes it hard to see who among its ranks could reconcile the two sides. And it is hard to see how a party in government could present the public with a prime minister who had not even served as a secretary of state. It is also clear that while Tory members are prepared to contemplate a less experienced leader, MPs are not convinced that this would be a wise strategy.
Yet something must change. For if the Tories stay as they are, Jeremy Corbyn will seize the moment and it will be the hard left that determines the future of Brexit Britain.