Oppositions don’t win elections — governments lose them. This has long been the Westminster wisdom. But the truth is that oppositions can lose elections, too: they must pass a basic competency test to be considered for office. Today, however, no party resembles a credible opposition to the Tories, let alone a government in waiting.
What makes this absence so striking is that the government is in such a perilous position. It must somehow implement Brexit. Leaving the EU will crowd out Theresa May’s domestic priorities and reveal all the divisions in the Tory party over what kind of relationship with the EU the UK should seek. As one Tory with good links to No. 10 puts it, ‘People regard this as existential to the country and so they will behave in a principledmanner, and won’t be whipped as easily.’
The short-term economic fallout from Britain leaving the EU won’t be simple for the government to deal with, either. If the fall in the pound leads to inflation of 4 to 5 per cent, then Britain will be back in a cost of living crisis — with prices rising faster than wages — of the sort that caused so much political difficulty to the coalition government in 2011 and 2012.
Timing is an issue, too. May has ruled out an early election, saying that the country needs a period of stability between now and 2020 to make progress. Going to the country before then would undermine her reputation for getting on with the job. But 2020 is a tight timeframe by which to achieve Brexit. May has said she will invoke the two-year process for leaving the EU before the end of March next year. But she has admitted that the process of leaving might take longer than that. Even if it is all done by 2019, the history of government IT systems doesn’t suggest that a new work-permit-based immigration system would be operating successfully by the time of the next election.
Nevertheless, the assumption at Westminster is that 2020 is a slam dunk for the Tories, the main question being: by how much can Theresa May increase her majority? That’s because the opposition is so weak.
Jeremy Corbyn is more secure as Labour leader than he has ever been. His re-election with an increased majority has cemented his position. It is now hard to see how he can be removed before 2020. He has managed to put together a shadow cabinet and front bench team that is far closer to him politically than his original one. Within the shadow cabinet, he is trying to freeze out the deputy leader Tom Watson, the only other person in the Parliamentary Labour Party with a direct mandate from the membership. I am told that Watson has been kept off the key shadow cabinet policymaking committees.
In fairness, Corbyn is getting slightly better at leading the opposition. His performances on TV and in the Commons chamber are improving, even if his choice of subject at PMQs can still be baffling. Last week, he went with mental health rather than either the cabinet divisions over Brexit or the question of what May knew about the problems at the child abuse inquiry. But these baby steps will count for little in a general election campaign where Corbyn’s hard-left views will receive proper public attention for the first time. It won’t just be his views on the economy and immigration that will cause him trouble, though. His attitude to the IRA, Hamas and Hezbollah will stick in the craw of most voters.
But it isn’t just Labour who are failing to be a proper opposition — Ukip are, too. Since the referendum, Ukip has been in disarray. Its summer leadership contest was a farce, with the two most credible candidates barred from standing for procedural reasons and the reluctant winner quitting after only 18 days. But the farce then turned violent as a meeting of Ukip MEPs ended up with the leadership frontrunner Steven Woolfe in a hospital bed for several days after a fight. Woolfe has now quit the party, saying it is in a ‘death spiral’.
Part of Ukip’s problem is financial. The party is so hard up, that — I understand — it is reluctant to pay an outside body to count the votes in the coming leadership election, so will do it in-house: a recipe for disaster in a party where the factions trust each other so little.
Another money problem for Ukip is Arron Banks, one of its leading donors. He has gained huge influence over the party in the last few years: a reminder that one of the problems with British politics and money is how quickly influence can be secured. He is a self-styled bad boy of Brexit who is determined not to abide by Westminster rules. In this contest, he has thrown his weight behind Raheem Kassam, who used to work for Nigel Farage. Kassam, who would be the youngest and least experienced party leader in living memory, seems to regard Donald Trump as a model to emulate: his slogan is ‘Make Ukip great again’.
Inside the party, a win for the former deputy leader Paul Nuttall is regarded as the most likely result. Nuttall is a competent politician, and would be well suited to taking on Labour in the north — he is an MEP for the North West. But he won’t set the heather alight or cause Theresa May any sleepless nights. As for the Liberal Democrats, they clearly regard their electoral route back as turning themselves into the Ukip of Remain — a party that appeals to a certain slice of the electorate which regards the EU membership as an identity issue. This might win them some seats, but it is not a national strategy.
The absence of opposition to May will mean that some Tories are prepared to be more critical of the government than they normally would be. This will create occasional bouts of political turbulence, but won’t threaten May’s position; there is a huge difference between criticising the Prime Minister and calling for a leadership election.
Politics abhors a vacuum, but it is hard to see a proper opposition to the Tories emerging before the next election.