Three predictions for British politics in 2018
THIS will be a year of two halves in British politics. The first six months will be dominated by drift. Theresa May will hold on as prime minister despite backbench discontent. Brexit will slouch ahead despite a growing sense of angst. The second half of the year will bring the possibility of high drama—of Parliament voting against Mrs May’s draft deal with the European Union, of the government collapsing, and of Jeremy Corbyn entering Downing Street. This column will offer two firm predictions for the era of drift and a more tentative one for the era of drama.
The first prediction is that the House of Lords will play a more prominent role than it has since before the first world war, when the Lords tried to block the Liberal government’s reforms and David Lloyd George, the chancellor of the exchequer, mocked them as “five hundred men accidentally chosen from among the ranks of the unemployed”. The Lords have a constitutional duty to scrutinise the EU withdrawal bill, which is making its way through the Commons. But the scrutiny could easily flare into a political crisis, given that a majority of peers strongly oppose Brexit.
Some leading Lords are spoiling for a fight with the government. Andrew Adonis, a Labour peer, has resigned as chairman of the government’s infrastructure commission to devote himself to stopping Brexit. Michael Heseltine, a Tory, has said that he regards Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party as less of a threat to the country than Brexit. Others worry that the withdrawal bill hands vast powers to the executive, which will use them to water down employment and other rights currently enshrined in EU law.
All this means that, oddly, the unelected House of Lords will have a more profound debate on the biggest change in Britain in half a century than will the elected House of Commons. The Lords include articulate, experienced people on both sides: John Kerr, for instance, knows as much as anybody about Article 50 of the EU treaty, since he was its principal author. The Lords are also freer to speak out than MPs, since for the most part they have already bagged what patronage they want. Conventional opinion will be turned on its head, as liberals rediscover the virtues of a revising chamber of experienced public servants (the meritocracy incarnate!), while conservatives rant about doddery old fools frustrating the will of the people.
The Lords will probably send the withdrawal bill back to the Commons several times. They may even defeat the government on matters of detail. But after a display of rhetorical fireworks they will shy away from constitutional conflict. It is impossible for even the best-run unelected chamber to prevail in a struggle with an elected one. And, as the Daily Mail will no doubt point out, the House of Lords is far from well run. It is the second-largest legislative body in the world, after the Chinese National Congress, with more than 800 members, scores of whom avail themselves of the £300 ($400) daily attendance allowance and free parking in central London without opening their mouths.
Nothing could be more British than the House of Lords. But the second prediction is the further Americanisation of British politics. For the past 30 years American politics has been consumed by “culture wars”, as questions of identity have replaced questions of economics at the heart of the political divide. Donald Trump, a billionaire Republican, did strikingly well among “deplorable” voters in the Rust Belt, while Hillary Clinton piled up votes in wealthy New York and California. Brexit is pushing Britain in the same direction, as the Conservative Party becomes the party of Leavers, who are concentrated in poor and rural areas, and Labour becomes the party of Remainers.
The past month has already seen a heated battle in the culture wars, with the Home Office’s announcement that it is planning to restore Britain’s supposedly iconic “blue” passports (Bagehot has his old passport to hand and has no doubt that it is black). A great deal more can be expected, with the wars following the same pattern. Leavers will seize on some icon of national identity and independence, such as the Royal Yacht Britannia; Remainers will denounce the icon as cheesy or irrelevant; and Leavers will denounce the Remainers as metropolitan snobs. The danger is that these wars will shift from safe subjects like passports and yachts to fraught ones such as refugees.
Fireworks and damp squibs
The more tentative prediction is that the high drama of the second half of the year won’t change very much. Parliament will not vote down the bill to leave the EU. Mrs May’s government won’t fall. Mr Corbyn will not become prime minister (yet). And Britain won’t hold a referendum on the terms of Brexit. The only real chance of reversing Brexit is if the British people change their minds, and so far there is no sign of this happening. The establishment is doing an even worse job of fighting to overturn Brexit than it did to resist it in the first place. An astonishing proportion of anti-Brexiteers seem to come adorned with titles and company directorships. Mr Corbyn continues to equivocate. Adding to the sense of inevitability is the fact that the governing party is overwhelmingly one of Brexiteers. A new survey by Queen Mary University of London and YouGov reveals that only 14% of Tory party members want a second referendum and only 25% support continued membership of the single market (the figures for Labour members are 78% and 87%).
“Darkest Hour”, a new film about Winston Churchill, is a reminder that the direction of history can always be changed provided that politicians possess enough will and courage. The Remainers may yet find a hero. Mr Corbyn may get off the fence. But it seems much more likely that the drift that will characterise the first half of the year will characterise the second half as well. “It’s always darkest before the dawn,” John McCain, an American senator and former presidential candidate, likes to point out. “And then you get punched in the face.”