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May’s meticulous train-wreck

by Meghnad Desai

May’s meticulous train-wreck


Two earthquakes have hit British politics. The first was Prime Minister Theresa May’s gamble of calling a general election three years earlier than necessary. She mistimed it badly, given she had already invoked Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon, which started the two-year period for negotiations on Britain’s exit from the European Union.

May wasted seven weeks over the needless poll and lost the meagre Conservative majority bequeathed by David Cameron, her predecessor. The episode came across as a meticulously planned train-wreck. May’s position is precarious. Her power is drained. Both parliament and the EU’s negotiators understand this. The result will be neither a ‘soft’ nor ‘hard’ Brexit – it will be a mangled Brexit.

The second earthquake is in the opposition Labour party. Many expected a massive defeat and a subsequent attempt to oust Jeremy Corbyn, who took over the party’s leadership in 2015, with a view to reconstructing Labour for elections in 2022. But Corbyn proved to be a crowd-puller. He obviously loved every moment. The leaking of the Labour manifesto was a great help. For a week, newspapers had no other topic to discuss. Every proposal was analysed, shock and horror expressed. And then the shocks were dismissed. Labour got a lot of free publicity.

Corbyn means to carry on in uncompromising socialist style. The media attacked him but there was little new to say – Corbyn has not changed his views for 35 years. His critics’ ripostes no longer impress older voters, and being hated by the tabloids makes Corbyn a hero to younger voters.
The Conservative manifesto was an unmitigated disaster. From then on, May’s lead over Corbyn began to slip. She was nervous and stilted, and the phrase ‘Maybot’, coined by journalist John Crace, became her moniker. Corbyn, in comparison, was described as a zen master.

Corbyn is reviving right-wing v. left-wing ideological politics in Britain. That debate had disappeared under former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair’s centrist ‘third way’. This election, too, was a return to two-party politics in the UK. Around 82% of all votes went to either the Labour party or the Conservatives, compared to 67% in 2015.

The reconstruction of the Labour party is postponed. Rebuilding the Conservative party has become the more urgent task – but it is impossible. Meanwhile, the EU deadline looms. Come March 2019, Brexit negotiations must be concluded. It is not outside the realm of possibility that, by then, the zen master will be prime minister. ▪

Lord (Meghnad) Desai is Emeritus Professor of Economics at the London School of Economics and Political Science, and Chair of the OMFIF Advisers Network. Between 1982-92, Desai was Labour party Chair for the constituency of Islington South and Finsbury.