The current political crisis over Brexit may be a warm-up for an even bigger conflict between ‘liberal Anywheres’ and ‘proletarian Somewheres’, fears Bill Jamieson.
It’s game over, the last throw of the dice, the band still playing as the Tory Titanic sinks. Oh, and for good measure, will the last Conservative to leave please switch off the lights?
Pundits and politicians are out of grim metaphors to describe the desperation and panic now evident across the UK’s oldest political party.
The pending collapse of the government is not just beyond normal – it’s off the Richter scale of political fluctuation. This is an epochal shift, and one more likely than not to prove terminal.
Local Conservative associations have revolted en masse. Former party bigwigs have kept shtum or have declared they will be voting Lib Dem. Even before the volley of vitriol that greeted Prime Minister Theresa May’s “bold new deal” fantasy earlier this week – a deal so roundly condemned it may now never be presented – the latest You Gov poll is arguably the most extraordinary ever published.
On the eve of the Euro elections, it puts the Brexit Party way out in front at 37 per cent, the Liberal Democrats on 19 per cent, Labour trailing third on 13 per cent, then the Greens on 12 per cent – and finally the Conservatives in fifth place on just seven per cent. Fifth place!
With every day of this mayhem the pound falls – down for the 13th successive day yesterday and now 26 per cent lower against the dollar than five years ago. Markets do not at all like what they are seeing. At home, the political language and behaviour grow more bitter and vicious. Normal conversation between voters and MPs has broken down. Calls for national unity fall on deaf ears.
Here in Scotland the SNP is set to romp home, support for the union fraying with every week of Westminster’s Brexit gridlock. It is reaping hitherto unlikely support from voters utterly disenchanted with the May premiership, the UK parliamentary machinations and the exasperating failure to find, after three years, a way out of the Brexit morass. Even Ruth Davidson’s Scottish Conservatives, thought to be immune from the deadly virus choking the party down south, could see a loss of support to the Brexit Party and the Lib Dems.
Up until now, last-ditch Tory loyalists have clung to the fiction that the Euro election result will be little more than a temporary protest vote – akin to what Labour’s Aneurin Bevan in the early 1960s called the party’s unilateralists: “an emotional spasm”. Once out the way, argued the Cabinet die-hards, life will return to normal and new leadership will pave the way for a revival and victory over the far-Left Jeremy Corbyn.
I don’t believe it for a minute. Not only is there scant likelihood that a Brexiteer premiership will alter the parliamentary arithmetic and Westminster opposition to a ‘No Deal’ departure, but there are also searching questions over the ability of front-runner Boris Johnson either to unite the party or win over sufficient voter support in central and northern parts of England. Scotland already looks a firm ‘no-no’ for Mr Johnson.
But the divide is now much deeper than that between Brexiteers and Remainers. It has morphed into a profound breakdown of political trust. Remainers look down on Leave voters as deluded know-nothings, their ranks boosted by prisoners let out on remand. Leave supporters – faced with taunts from Change UK supporter Gavin Esler (ex BBC) that they are just “village idiots” – view the battleground as one of the people against an entitled oligarch caste.
Support for the Brexit party has been fuelled by a growing conviction among many that “they just don’t care what we think”. It goes beyond Mrs May and her thrice-rejected deal. It extends to the Cabinet ministers who have sustained her in office, the senior civil servants who have advised her, the Treasury under arch-Remainer Philip Hammond, the Bank of England and the BBC – a privileged, supercilious alliance of the liberal ‘Anywheres’ against the proletarian know-nothings of the ‘Somewheres’.
Against this backcloth, the demise of the Conservative Party may prove far from the worst casualty. Barring a dramatic change of national mood, I fear we are heading for a showdown that will make the Brexit battle so far a mere warm-up.