That the UK needs to hold a general election and that it needs a new Prime Minister are so overwhelmingly evident that it is worth interrogating the sheer weirdness of why neither is happening automatically. Theresa May’s government had in all practical respects collapsed back in November. After the Democratic Unionist Party had refused to endorse May’s Chequers deal, her government had lost its parliamentary majority on almost every significant economic question. Yesterday, with the pursuit of “indicative voting,” a government that cannot legislate has been replaced with a potential parliamentary majority that has no government to implement its decisions. This is not so much a transfer of power as of powerlessness.
We have reached the point where May should go simply for the relief of having her gone. Her neurotic and secretive personality casts its dreadful spell over everything that the government does. To have a new face on the television everyday might create a happy sense of rigor mortis unstiffening and knock some of the current bleakness off the Brexit process. But even after May’s government had all but imploded, Conservative MPs, in an amazing act of political cowardice, collectively made the choice to freeze her and it in place for another year. They can now only dislodge her by shaking down the entire house, in voting against their own government in a parliamentary motion of no confidence. (Confusingly, for the government to “lose control” of the legislative process is by some accident of constitutional semantics not interpretable as a no-confidence vote).
And with this we reach the solid bed of consensus beneath the swirling murk of the Brexit debate, the one factor that unites both the revolutionaries and the establishment. A terror of what the electorate will decide next.
Both sides have been burned badly when previously trying to manipulate the voters. In 2015, Labour ran a general election campaign that implied that anybody who did not want to end austerity was heartless and selfish. The result of this crass emotional manipulation was a surprise majority for the Conservatives. During the 2016 referendum, the establishment attempted to spook us into rubber-stamping our EU membership by presenting us with a long and very florid list of threats. This inept management of the masses was met with another surprise rejection. Yet when May embarked on a power-grab in 2017, it was this time Labour and Remain who became the beneficiaries of the public’s annoyance at being taken for granted. Her nonsensical sound bites and patronising rhetoric (e.g. “there is no magic money tree”) cost her a majority government.
With manifesto promises from both political parties gone with the wind, the priorities of six-hundred-and-fifty lonely parliamentarians have been superimposed over those of millions of people. We are in essence witnessing an emergency suspension of the norms of representative government (one comparable, incidentally, to the build-up to the Iraq war). It is here curious how little urgency there has been from Brexiteers and Remainers alike to appeal for more of a mandate. This can only speak of a shared lack of confidence in the popularity of their values and an instinct to protect slim and temporary advantages from the power of the people. Only the Labour front bench have been calling for a general election with anything that resembles warmth, and if there was a general election, they would most probably try to evade or muffle Brexit by standing on an anti-austerity ticket.
The electorate remain unreadable and unpredictable. They are out there waiting in all of their millions, twinkling with mystery. Are they more annoyed by the sloganistic glibness of Brexiteers who have led them off into a pathless wilderness of parliamentary intrigue? Or are they more annoyed by the effrontery of obstructionist MPs?
The latest opinion poll puts 55% of the public in favour of remaining in the EU, although many of the most energetic and influential Remainers in the current parliament, such as Anna Soubry, Dominic Grieve, and Nick Boles, look likely to lose their seats come electiontime. Moreover, if a fresh referendum was held tomorrow, those lords, luvvies and students who would campaign the most volubly to end Brexit are also the likeliest to alienate the public with their arrogant and unempathetic behaviour. The pattern of recent history is clear and its lesson is plain. The winning side in the next democratic event will be the least manipulative and the least patronising one, the one that holds the voters in the sincerest respect.