The Tories should ignore the narrow polls and focus on the battle after Brexit, writes Paris Gourtsoyannis
You could say that Theresa May is lot like Winston Churchill. No, wait – David Davis and I want you to hear us out.
That was the claim advanced by the Brexit Secretary at the weekend when it was put to him that May’s government was a shambles and she couldn’t possibly stay in power much longer.
It is a difficult charge to defend. Two cabinet ministers have been forced to resign, one over his past conduct towards women, another for conducting freelance foreign policy in secret meetings with the Israeli government.
The elevation of May’s chief whip to fill one of the vacancies provoked outrage among Tory colleagues and led to accusations that he had effectively promoted himself.
Her deputy and closest ally Damien Green is himself under investigation over alleged sexual harassment (which he denies), and a former commissioner of the Metropolitan Police has said that pornography was found on a computer in his office (which Mr Green denies knowledge of).
The Prime Minister faces multiple rebellions and potentially crippling defeats when flagship Brexit legislation returns to the House of Commons today. In Brussels, negotiations on an EU exit deal are going nowhere, with the likelihood growing that May will have to accept a Brexit bill of almost £60 billion, or let talks collapse and leave business to pick up the pieces.
That’s just the past two weeks. Yet May somehow manages to struggle on, embodying the Churchillian spirit that Davis so admires when he predicts she will see out the Brexit process.
More remarkable than that, she appears to have kept the faith of a large part of the public. Labour are no more than a couple of points ahead in the latest opinion polls, despite the government being in meltdown. May has even edged ahead of Jeremy Corbyn in polling on who would make the best Prime Minister – although “don’t know” enjoys a narrow lead over both of them.
Many commentators argue that Labour should be crushing the Tories when they’re at their weakest in more than a decade, including Tony Blair, who has claimed Corbyn should be sitting on a 15 to 20-point lead.
So what’s going on? In reality, May could easily survive longer than anyone expects, but it’s the Tories who should be worried about the long term.
Both Brexit factions in government fear pushing the Prime Minister out might let the other side take her place. And none of the plotters relish having to deliver Brexit and suffer the abuse from at least half the country.
In the absence of any willing or viable candidates, the wider Conservative party has little enthusiasm for a leadership contest, either. A change at the top could lead to another election, with the Tories still at a loss to explain their lack of appeal to younger voters.
On current evidence, Labour might not win another election outright, but the Tories could easily lose it. For now, at least, both sides of the divide within the government are likely to keep May where she is and let her absorb the punishment.
In normal times, an opposition might gallop into the distance. But those who ask why Labour aren’t further ahead ignore the fact we don’t live in normal times.
The Brexit vote may have crossed political lines but in its wake, voters have flocked to the two main parties for safety. Despite evidence to the contrary, people still identify May’s Tories as the most likely to deliver Brexit, and Corbyn’s Labour as the party to oppose it. The silent, scunnered majority who simply want the UK’s exit from the EU to be over with as quickly and painlessly as possible still back the government to just get on with it.
Once that’s done, however, people will want more. Whether you agree with it or not, Labour has set out a vision for the UK after Brexit. Meanwhile – incredibly – the Cabinet has not even sat down to discuss what sort of country post-Brexit Britain should be because the Prime Minister knows that debate would shatter her government.
In the absence of any direction from Downing Street, others are revealing how they see the future. James Dyson paints a picture of an economy where some of the most liberal employment laws in Europe are cut back further, so that labour is easy-come, easy-go and companies don’t pay a penny in tax. Ignoring its centrally controlled society and economy, he argues Britain should become a new Singapore off the shores of the EU – an easy call for Dyson, who moved most of his manufacturing out of the UK to south-east Asia. The Tory MP John Redwood is even more brazen, advising wealthy investment clients to shift their money overseas while advocating a “no-deal” Brexit at home, all in the name of sovereignty.
Critics are right to call this out as disaster capitalism. What would voters make of that pitch in a general election?
More responsible Tories like Ruth Davidson and Amber Rudd need to spell out an alternative vision soon. Churchill was beloved as Britain’s wartime leader, but he wasn’t the man the people wanted to win the peace. Clement Attlee’s Labour emerged from the Second World War with a vision for a new country that enthralled a weary nation, and Churchill was rather cruelly dispensed with by the voters of 1945.
This is not a crass comparison between the world’s bloodiest conflict and Brexit, nor am I mistaking Churchill’s heroic wartime leadership for the political blocked drain that keeps May in power.
But the UK’s exit from the EU will transform the country on a scale not seen since the end of the war and define its future for the rest of the century. The next general election is set for 2021, marking the end of five years of anxious Brexit limbo.
Voters will demand a vision equal to the realities of a post-Brexit economy and a rapidly changing world.
Like in 1945, they will reward the party that captures that mood, not the one that got the country there.