When a political party has existed for as long as Britain’s Conservatives, nothing is entirely without precedent. This even goes for the dire situation in which Prime Minister Theresa May finds herself after she threw away her majority in a snap election before setting out to govern with a divided party in a hung parliament.
In fact, to paraphrase Mark Twain, history sometimes rhymes. In 1923, shortly after the collapse of a coalition with the Liberals, and with a healthy Commons majority, the Tories chose a new leader. Stanley Baldwin then went on a walking holiday and decided to call a snap election.
The election went wrong, the Tories lost 80 seats, and Baldwin was returned at the head of the largest party in a hung parliament. He attempted to go it alone but, in the end, was forced to allow a minority Labour government to take office. Is history about to repeat itself? The plain answer is no. For one thing, the arithmetic in the hung parliament of 2017 is much more favourable to the Tories than in 1923.
For another, Baldwin defied right wing attempts to unseat him and went on to become one of his party’s most successful leaders. Few think May has a long future as leader. But Baldwin has at least one lesson for her. Not many Tory leaders have been better at learning the lessons of defeat and adapting than Baldwin.
The question 94 years later is whether May can learn and adapt too. The initial signs were terrible. Weeks ago, with her majority lost and her stock at rock bottom, May was at her most robotic, announcing her new government in Downing Street as though nothing had changed, when in fact everything had — and committing to a deal with the Democratic Unionists before thinking her options through. This week, there have been signs that there may be a touch of the Baldwin about her after all.
She was humble when she met Tory backbenchers recently. She allowed cabinet ministers to challenge her Brexit policy. She appointed the consensual Gavin Barwell as chief of staff to replace the divisive Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill. She was self-deprecating in the Commons when it reassembled to re-elect Speaker Bercow. And she clearly knows that the party is terrified of an early leadership contest and of an early general election. These are, though, very small signs.
They are the least of what she will have to do if she is to prevent the Tory party from imploding and handing Jeremy Corbyn his chance. The really big tests for May’s survival are her economic policy and, above all, her approach to Brexit. And, on both, the signs are that she simply doesn’t yet get it about what the electorate did. May called the election to win a mandate on Brexit. But she never levelled with the voters about what exactly she wanted to achieve in the EU negotiations that got underway yesterday.
So it has to be assumed that she wanted a mandate for her Lancaster House speech in January — in particular to leave the single market and the customs union, and to walk away from the talks if she cannot get the deal she desires. The result on 8 June denied her that mandate. More concretely, it returned a Westminster majority that will not accept a hard Brexit. Philip Hammond leads that faction in the cabinet, and pro-European Tory backbenchers have been re-emboldened. But it is Ruth Davidson’s 13 Scottish Tories, all committed to a soft Brexit, who have swung the numbers against May’s strategy.
May has to respond. One option being canvassed in Tory circles goes under the heading of “Norway for now”. In this scenario, May’s political need is to stop her party obsessing about Brexit in order to show that it is fully engaged with the social policy issues — the NHS, social care, and housing above all — to which so many voters gave more priority.
To get on to that social policy ground, the argument runs, May should decisively park the UK’s relationship with the EU in a Norway or Switzerland-style soft Brexit. The principal advantages of that approach would be threefold.
First, it would clearly deliver the exit from the EU that the 2016 referendum requires and that the Tory Europhobes will always demand.
Second, it would steady the UK’s financial and manufacturing sectors, just as inflation has begun to rise and put jobs at risk.
Third, it would give Davidson a further boost in Scotland, by allowing her to show that she, not Nicola Sturgeon, has delivered a soft Brexit for Scotland, thus weakening the independence movement further.
“Norway for now” has other political attractions for the Tories too. There would be no problems with the DUP — another reason why John Major is right that a formal deal with Arlene Foster and her colleagues is more trouble than it is worth.
It would allow May to put Corbyn on the spot about what precisely Labour stands for on Brexit. It might even cause one or two expendable right wing Tory leavers to quit the government. And, in time, it could free May, or her successor, to deliver some of the promises to the “just about managing” with whom Labour gained the upper hand in the election.
Does May have the skills and determination to follow this kind of fresh thinking? The judgement among many Tories I have spoken to since the election is that she doesn’t. May is too stubborn to be a Baldwin, they say. And, in any case, there is a mood change among the public and the party that even Baldwin would struggle to master.
What is the alternative? If May continues on her hard Brexit, she will lose Commons votes, force her party into splits, hasten the loss of the prime ministership, risk a general election that could be even worse for the Tories than last week’s, and go down in history as a fleeting and failed national leader. Perhaps all these things will happen anyway. May still has the opportunity to be the shaper not the victim of events. But does she have what it takes?
—Guardian News & Media Ltd
Martin Kettle is an associate editor of the Guardian and writes on British, European and American politics, as well as the media, law and music.