Conservative Zugzwang Redux

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After the 2017 General Election, I wrote a postabout how, whatever the Conservatives did next, they would make their position worse (a situation called ‘zugzwang’ in chess). In that post, by taking a piece of received wisdom as given, I underestimated the hole they were in. The mistake I made was to assume that by 2021 the Brexit issue will have been put to bed and a new Conservative leader would be elected in time to fight the next election.

The error was to underestimate the determination of the Brexiters to keep the issue alive. If a deal is made with the EU and parliament accepts that deal (both big ifs) it will be on terms which Brexiters find more intolerable than being in the EU. We will be in the customs union and at least part of the single market: pay, obey but no say. The reasons that the Brexiters will keep complaining about that kind of Brexit is partly because they cannot stop themselves, but mainly because they need to keep the issue alive to obtain the prize of the Tory leadership. In this they will be helped by the return of UKIP talking of the Brexit betrayal. The received wisdom after the 2016 vote that the Brexit vote would end this fatal division among the right of UK politics was another mistake. 

That leads to the ultimate zugzwang: Remain Tory MPs cannot risk May departing from the scene, because if she does the solid Leave majority among members will vote in a Brexiter. The Conservative zugzwang is even worse than I thought in that earlier post. If MPs vote through an EU deal and we enter transition there is a good chance Theresa May will fight the next General Election. What seemed unthinkable after 2017 now seems most likely. We know from 2017 and the immediate aftermath of the Grenfell tragedy that May is the type of leader that makes the most of Corbyn’s qualities.

It is worse than that. The issue of ‘Brexit betrayal’ will remain alive until 2022. UKIP will start taking votes from Conservatives more than they take votes from Labour, because Leavers are more likely to be Conservatives. That does not mean Labour are bound to win in 2022. The Conservatives will try their best to convince voters that Labour under Corbyn will tear the UK’s economy and foreign policy apart even more than the Tories have done. But an actual or impending end to transition will not be sold by the Conservatives as a triumph but instead will remain an existential threat to the party.

If this happens, Labour’s position becomes much easier. From the moment Labour vote against the deal and if we leave in March 2019, the pressure on Labour to adopt a clear Remain stance will ease and they can focus on the damage the deal will do to the UK. The focus will move to how we can improve ties to Europe compared to the final settlement rather than how we can avoid leaving. If they are smart they will play on who will replace May, and what a Conservative government with Rees-Mogg or Johnson as Prime Minister would be like.

This is the real significance of the next election whenever it comes. It is tempting for many to see this as a battle between extremes, with the two main parties being forced away from the centre ground of politics by their memberships’ ability to choose their leaders. In reality any Labour government under Corbyn or any successor will follow a centre-left agenda because the overwhelming majority of their MPs are that way inclined. Whatever some centrists may say now, from their point of view a Labour government will be mostly harmless as well as doing the economy a lot of good.

Divisions within the Conservative party over Brexit are far more fundamental, because the number of Brexiter MPs are much greater. As their membership is that way inclined they could quite quickly become a majority. A Brexiter leader seems inevitable before that point, and the last two years have taught us that the internal resistance to that among MPs will be pretty weak. Tory Remain MPs have a fatal weakness, which is that they value party unity much more than their Brexiter opponents.

Once the Brexiters have captured the leadership, they will of course attempt to achieve a much greater break with the EU than anything May negotiates. No referendum will be necessary, because they will only be achieving the true ‘will of the people’. With that is bound to come a much more authoritarian and illiberal regime, partly because the Brexiters have no problems with that as we have seen, but also because it will be required to retain power. The Conservative party will become very like today’s Republican party in the US.

The question that everyone besides Brexiters should be asking is how their eventual domination of the Conservative party can be stopped. The only way I can see is for Conservative party members and their supporters in the press to see how damaging that position is, and the only way I can see that happening is by the Conservatives becoming the natural party of opposition as a consequence of Brexit.

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