Monday 24 October 2022

Out by Christmas?


It seems increasingly likely that Rishi Sunak will become the UK’s next soon-to-be-ex-PM by the end of the day, either because Mordaunt fails to reach the threshold of 100 nominees or else because an indicative vote amongst MPs shows her so far behind Sunak that she succumbs to the inevitable pressure to withdraw rather than potentially allow the Tory Party’s membership to override the views of MPs again. Either way, it will be presented as the start of an outbreak of party unity. That will, though, just be another pretence.

Johnson claimed that he had the numbers to enter the race. That’s almost certainly a lie, according to many commentators, and there is indeed no reason to suppose that his long-standing divorce from truthfulness has in any way been impacted by a six week absence from high office. His inability to face the fact that he simply doesn’t have the support means that he has been forced to alight on some other reason for withdrawing from a race that he had never formally entered, and he came up with the line that he could not unite his warring party. It’s one of those strange statements which treads the boundary between truth and falsehood: whilst it’s certainly true that he cannot unite his party, the idea that he believes that he can’t, or that this is his real reason for not standing, is for the birds, such is his unshakeable belief in his own talents.

The accidental truth, though, that Boris Johnson cannot unite the Tory Party conceals a much greater truth of more general application: nobody can. And however much they try to present the forthcoming coronation of Sunak as a mark of unity, Sunak can’t do it either. The party is hopelessly divided into factions whose only mutual factor is an intense loathing of each other. And whilst part of that is about policy issues – such as levels of taxation and public expenditure – an awful lot of it is deeply personal. Johnsonites won’t forgive Sunak for, as they see it, knifing their man, and the path being followed by the current Chancellor (who may or may not still be in office tomorrow) is utterly unacceptable to the free market ultras, for whom cutting taxes and slashing public expenditure is an article of faith. Whether the policy of the new government can somehow be made attractive to ordinary voters is little more than a side-show compared to the difficulties of getting it through a jittery bunch of Tory MPs fearful above all for their own futures.

The electoral system in use in the UK forces any party serious about winning a majority to become something of a broad church. Whilst that’s traditionally been more obvious in the case of Labour, it’s always been true about the Tories as well. Unity around the desire for power and for the trappings of office has long enabled the Tories to conceal the fact better, but differing views about the relationship between these offshore islands and the mainland of Europe have been bubbling away internally since the days of Thatcher, and the ‘victory’ which Brexit represents for one Tory faction has been the catalyst for a descent into an all-out ideological war which has become highly personal in the process. There will be no bridging of the void this side of a general election, and it’s entirely possible that they may burn through a few more PMs before then. Why Sunak – or anyone else except Johnson with his grossly inflated sense of self – would actually want the job in the circumstances is beyond my understanding.

A proportional system would allow the major parties to fragment into more cohesive and united individual parties, and force negotiations between those parties about agreed programmes for government. Sometimes, those agreements would break down, just as the internal agreement within the Tory Party has broken down now. The difference is that such a breakdown between parties would create the opportunity and the mechanism for those differences to be judged by the electorate if no alternative could be formally negotiated. The current system tries to hide the differences and pretend that there is a coherent government in place, on the basis of an artificially high ‘majority’ in an election 3 years ago. It’s a sham, and the only remaining question is whether any pretend peace between the factions can hold until Christmas. It looks unlikely, although if Sunak sends MPs home for Christmas early (around the middle of November, perhaps), he might improve his prospects. Johnson is probably calculating that he’ll get another chance sooner than many imagine.

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