Of course I didn’t listen to Boris Johnson’s speech today, although I am sure it is available somewhere on Youtube. I heard the gist of it in the media. Due to a slight lie-in this morning I nevertheless caught Theresa May on the Today programme, and only wish I’d slept in for a bit longer. She was unable to answer even the simplest of questions, but instead sought to answer the questions that were rattling randomly around inside her head – and didn’t even do that very successfully. One can only imagine that her seeing off Andrea Leadsom for the leadership of the Tory party remains her greatest triumph. What a triumph!
Where we are now is all the more disturbing when one considers the stakes. In the past, and forever in the future there will be differences within political parties, but compare the Tories’ current situation with situations past. When Kinnock was taking on Militant in the 80s there was no question of whether Labour was about to succumb to the Tendency – it was a tendency confined to a relatively small number of enclaves, and didn’t have the resonance amongst members to make it a full-on insurgency. It was a much detested thing for those of us who sat through meetings with Millies seeking to exert their influence. The Bennite left couldn’t disassociate itself from Militant, but never praised it. For Tony Benn it was just a case of democrashy, let everybody have their say. Yes, we had the Gang of Four and people began to write off the Labour Party, but our electoral system broke the back of the SDP and with it the Liberal alliance faded away. The Labour Party had a bad time, but survived and came back, albeit with a much pinker tinge.
Then we had the Blair/Brown stuff, pored over in the media as if the soul of the party had suffered some kind of nuclear fission event, splintering into such separate camps (sorry for all the mixed metaphors) that it faced implosion. But Blair and Brown clearly didn’t have much disagreement about policy direction – the only split was over responsibilities. Gordon was as new Labour as his titular boss.
I think we are now in a different position, because of Brexit. Never mind all the talk of Labour rightists starting a new party, the place to look for that is firmly on the Tory right (and the anti-remain faction may end up being called the Conservative Party). What makes the current situation extraordinary is the fate of Brexit. I don’t think the seriousness of this even compares with, e.g. unilateralism in Gaitskell’s day. If we had unilaterally abandoned nuclear weapons it wouldn’t have made a jot of difference to anything. I believe even Enoch Powell thought the UK ‘deterrent’ was a waste of money – he thought the Americans should pay for it. But Brexit is different. It is already affecting people’s lives – we are already paying higher prices as a result of the uncertainty – and the government is so fundamentally split that the E.U. cannot be sure who it is negotiating with.
In other words, we already have two governments, a nominal government under May, and a shadow government (which exercises real power) under the Johnson/Rees-Smug Axis. It looks like we’ll have to labour under this dual government for quite a while yet, hence Labour’s demand for a general election. The trouble is, how would Labour fare if this election took place before March 29th, 2019?