Bill Jamieson: Times are a changing at Westminster

John Major was one of six Conservative leaders to be caught out by the politics of Europe. Picture: AFP/Getty Images

John Major was one of six Conservative leaders to be caught out by the politics of Europe. Picture: AFP/Getty Images

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PARTY leaders struggling to assert their authority show the signs of a pivotal moment in politics, writes Bill Jamieson

A defining moment is approaching for politics at Westminster. Events this week have moved it perceptibly closer.

Both on the Right and on the Left, party leaders have struggled to assert their authority in the past few days. Prime Minister David Cameron has had to abandon his previous insistence on Cabinet unity over the EU referendum to allow ministers to be free to campaign for a “Brexit”.

And Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has struggled to impose some coherence and authority to his shadow Cabinet team. But such was the long, drawn out affair that the reshuffle had become – preceded by weeks of corrosive speculation – that there is no sign whatever that his circumscribed changes have had any positive impact on bolstering support across Labour MPs and the party generally. On the contrary.

Both developments may be seen as evidence of a changing mood within political parties at Westminster, reflecting a wider cultural change where we have become notably less deferential towards leadership and more questioning of the need for conformity.

However, the divisions run so deep that this is clearly more than a coincident crisis of leadership. For the Conservatives the divisions over Europe are persistent and profound. It is 30 years since the premiership of Margaret Thatcher opened up visible divisions in the party’s hitherto supportive stance on Europe. Throughout the 1990s these divisions erupted into open revolt over the Maastricht Treaty. And over the last ten years, Euro scepticism within the party has grown.

David Cameron is the sixth Conservative Party leader to be ensnared by the politics of Europe. It brought down Thatcher, de-stabilised John Major, and contributed to the brief regimes of William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard. Ukip has torn at the soft underbelly of party support and many constituency associations are now openly in favour of Brexit.

And how will the referendum resolve this issue exactly? A narrow majority in favour of remaining within the EU is hardly likely to see Eurosceptics folding their tents and melting into the background. This division, reflective of deep differences in attitude and mindset across related issues, shows every sign of permanence. And any attempt by the European Commission to treat a “stay-in” vote as a mandate for pushing ahead with further integration is likely to reignite ferocious opposition.

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Nor would a narrow vote to leave avoid future dissension. It is more likely to trigger warnings from EU-supporting Tories of economic and political disaster. It is hardly likely that the process of leaving would be made smooth. Indeed, sanctions and penalties will emerge in Brussels, to discourage other countries with rising Eurosceptic movements to follow suit. The European Commission will do everything possible to promote the holding of a second referendum – in the time-honoured hope that a cowed and fearful electorate will be persuaded “to think again”.

Meanwhile, what of Labour’s prospects of peace and unity? Jeremy Corbyn’s reshuffle was intended to cauterise division and bolster the authority of the party leader. Instead, this lengthy affair has left the position of shadow foreign secretary Hilary Benn ambiguous at best. He firmly denies suggestions that he has been “put on mute” – a confusion that will ensure the party’s divisions will continue to bleed.

Has the reshuffle elsewhere calmed the ranks and ushered in a mood of peace and reconciliation? Anger continues to spew forth, particularly over the sacking of Pat McFadden, the shadow cabinet spokesman on Europe. Mr McFadden had spoken out over the response to the Paris terror attacks of the Stop the War Coalition, which Mr Corbyn used to chair.

Changes in the shadow cabinet saw anti-Trident MP Emily Thornberry replacing the pro-Trident shadow defence secretary Maria Eagle, who was moved over to replace the sacked shadow culture minister Michael Dugher. Mr Corbyn was unable to move Hilary Benn for fear of provoking a spate of shadow cabinet resignations and condemnation from many Labour back benchers. MPs find it hard to take lessons on discipline from a leader who himself defied previous party leaders more than 500 times.

So, far from appeasing the rebels, both the manner of the reshuffle and suggestions of constraints on future Benn pronouncements have stirred more bad feeling. Three shadow ministers have now resigned in protest, the most prominent being the party’s rail spokesman, Jonathan Reynolds. Commentators and voters alike struggled yesterday to keep pace with the whirlwind of contradictory pronouncements, appointments – and resignations.

So much for a reshuffle that was meant to smooth feathers. Indeed, the language deployed on both sides in recent days has bordered on venom. Michael Dugher was branded not only disloyal but also “incompetent”. Pat McFadden has been denounced as “serially disloyal”, while his supporters have charged that Corbyn is proving a “total disaster” and that the Labour Party is being “driven off a cliff”.

However, the latest outbreaks of unrest are about more than leadership style – or the lack of it. They speak to a deeper unease over the direction of the party and a widespread fear that it is abandoning the middle ground. Dissident MPs are stymied because many of their constituency offices are hotbeds of Corbynista support and de-selection is a real threat. They cling on gamely but are being reduced in numbers and influence.

How long can this war of attrition continue before the full extent of the divisions are opened up and the party splits asunder?

The pressure on Corbyn is as intense as ever, while fundamental divisions on key policies have widened. What is the broad public to make of the positions and policies of the respective party leaderships when such divisions are now in the open and their views publicly challenged?

What we are witnessing may thus be much more than spats over leadership styles than fateful steps towards a break-up of both parties. Political forces within party structures are erupting that have been building for some time. That Labour has survived thus far in its present form owes much to the infusion of new members who may now trigger a recasting. At the same time, the haemorrhaging of Conservative Party membership to Ukip was disguised by the collapse of Lib Dem support in the general election last May.

Would it not be more coherent and comprehensible for Conservatives to divide into two distinct parties? And for Labour’s Centre Left to develop a presence separate and distinct from that of the Corbynite party?

That is why the developments of this week could prove a pivotal period for party politics in Britain – and not at all in the way that the party leaders imagined. This is not an isolated stormy week, still less what Harold Macmillan, in a different era, dismissed as “a little local difficulty”. It is evidence of a slide, and it is gathering pace.

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