Euan McColm: If May needs a mandate, Corbyn will oblige

Prime ministers wield varying degrees of power; some can, to all intents and purposes, do as they damned well please, while others have to play a more cautious game in order to carry the House of Commons with them.

Corbyn at the dispatch box during Theresa Mays first Prime Ministers Question Time. Picture: Jessica Taylor/PA
Corbyn at the dispatch box during Theresa Mays first Prime Ministers Question Time. Picture: Jessica Taylor/PA

After Labour’s 1997 landslide, Tony Blair had carte blanche to do whatever he wanted (though he held on to his political capital with an overly cautious first term), while David Cameron, in 2010, was restricted, by coalition with the Liberal Democrats, in how far he could go in implementing his policy agenda.

By rights, Theresa May should not be an especially powerful prime minister. Yes, the Conservative Party has a parliamentary majority, but last month’s EU referendum has left the country divided and this should, in normal circumstances, have created the most remarkable opportunity for Labour to mount a serious challenge to the current government.

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As it is, that challenge has not materialised. The Labour party’s useless leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has seen to that.

May’s first Prime Minister’s Question Time on Wednesday exposed the size of the competence gulf between the new resident of 10 Downing Street and the Leader of the Opposition. She channelled Margaret Thatcher at her most ferocious while he channelled an Open University lecturer from 1978. It was painful to watch. Corbyn’s ineptitude was beautifully demonstrated by his failure, having asked a question about new Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson’s track record of making controversial remarks and received no answer, to return to the subject.

Corbyn and his supporters have been enjoying a holiday from the real world since his election 10 months ago, and it looks, if polls are anything to go by, as if their trip will be extended by the coming Labour leadership election. Challenger Owen Smith is already being written off.

Corbyn’s complete lack of suitability for leadership has made May’s position stronger than it deserves to be. His victory in the Labour leadership election will make it stronger still.

There is a growing clamour among the Tory ranks for May to call an early general election. The introduction of fixed term parliaments makes this complicated, but achievable (May could either amend the legislation or call for a vote of no confidence in her government).

If Corbyn wins the Labour leadership election, this move makes perfect sense.

The Prime Minister remains opposed to the idea but colleagues hope that she can be persuaded to change her mind.

One scenario suggested by a senior Tory figure is that the PM should use the triggering of Article 50 – a move required to begin the process of the UK’s departure from the EU – early next year as the reason for an election. May would outline her proposals for how the UK should proceed in its negotiations and ask the country for its endorsement.

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One can see the appeal.

Labour under Corbyn trails the Conservative Party by 11 points in the polls (and those Corbynistas who harrumph that polls can’t be trusted are, I’d venture, kidding themselves if they believe they are wildly inaccurate in this instance). The coming weeks of the Labour leadership election can only hurt the Opposition’s standing even further.

Should May call an election in the first months of 2017, she’d be up against a Labour party in complete disarray. She would, I am sure, romp to victory.

I’d bet on Labour not only losing seats to the Tories but, in the north of England and in Wales, to Ukip.

And here’s the added bonus for May: because the Labour party is now effectively the Cult of Corbyn, the likelihood is that electoral annihilation wouldn’t mean his removal from post. She’d come out of a general election facing the same completely dreadful opposition that she’d just thwacked all over the country.

And who would bet against the Tories picking up a few seats – even one or two – from the SNP in rural Scotland? A second electoral slip – even a small one – for the nationalists under Nicola Sturgeon would damage the SNP’s story that Scotland is, even now, marching towards independence. This, it should be said, might be no bad thing for the First Minister, who has rather overdone the promises when it comes to her current campaign to “protect” Scotland’s place in the EU.

An early general election would also allow the Prime Minister to shape the party in her own image. She could see to it that “her people” were selected in marginal seats. With her own mandate, and a raft of new MPs whose loyalty to her would be in no doubt, she could comfortably tell the hard-right cell that exists – and always will exist – in the Tories’ parliamentary group to get stuffed.

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Former Tory PM John Major was constantly hamstrung by what he called the “bastards” on his own benches. It would be wise for May to do whatever she can to ensure she is not similarly ground down by Tory MPs who will not be comfortable with the pragmatic, centre-right politics she, undoubtedly, intends to practise.

Even if Corbyn loses to Smith and finds himself returned to the back benches, Labour is far from on the up. The division caused by Corbyn’s leadership will endure, whether he wins or loses. The members of his supporters’ group, Momentum, are in no mood to skulk off back to the Greens or the Socialist Workers Party. Their new, kinder, gentler politics of anti-Semitism, misogyny, and intimidation will continue to tear Labour to shreds.

In the world of the Corbynista – and the angry Scottish nationalist – May is the embodiment of all that is malign. But that cartoonish analysis is not borne out by her actions in the early days of her premiership. She has been reassuring, confident, and professional. She’s given a good account of herself in meetings in Europe. And she’s shown that, if not a natural when it comes to the theatre of PMQs, she’s head and shoulders above her opposite number.

Right now, it looks like Theresa May is going to be PM for a long time to come. Jeremy Corbyn can take much of the credit for that.