The failure of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party to retain both seats in the by-elections held yesterday has already resulted in recriminations from within the official opposition, with some calling the results a ‘disaster’. Indeed they were a disaster, for those who would like to see Corbyn fall from grace. Despite losing Copeland, Labour held Stoke Central, so this mixed bag was deemed enough by many to hold back the conversion of regular fraternal attacks into a full-scale leadership challenge. Corbyn cannot be overly perturbed by the grumblings, coming as they do from the ‘usual suspects’, and following his second decisive victory in his second leadership election. The reality is his position is secure for as long as he wishes it to be, which will be when a viable successor comes along.
For a viable successor – and PM in waiting – to emerge, either from the Corbynista wing or elsewhere, they need to possess 4 qualities: ambition, ideas, charisma, and support. Many Labour MPs hold some of these characteristics, but none (Corbyn included) seem to hold them all. Some have put forward Clive Lewis, the recently departed Shadow Business Secretary as a possible contender, but how can a party riven by its position on Brexit appoint a man who felt so strongly leaving the EU was a bad thing that he resigned? Two thirds of the Labour Party’s MPs represent areas that supported Brexit. Others suggest Rebecca Long-Bailey, the current Shadow Business Secretary, to which the common refrain is ‘who’? Labour is not even on its B-Team anymore, with so few of its MPs willing to serve on the front bench under a leader they regard as a disaster. It may well be the case that the next Labour Prime Minister is not even in the House of Commons yet.
Meanwhile, the Tories under Theresa May continue on their merry way largely unchecked. Yesterday was a win-win for the Conservatives: either they took the seats and increased their majority, or Labour retained them and Corbyn remained unchallenged as Labour leader. Their victory in Copeland seems to justify the Prime Minister’s reorientation towards the ‘just about managing’ people who might otherwise have been tempted to vote UKIP, particularly in the north, and is why she is riding so high in the polls at the moment. Some thought the Conservatives would never again breach the 40% mark, and here we are with polls consistently putting the Government on anywhere between 40% and 44%.
The Prime Minister can now turn to face the invocation of Article 50 with few worries. The Tories no longer have a ‘Europe problem’ since virtually all pro-EU MPs were soft Remainers and the party is in any way much more ideologically comfortable being anti-EU. With no opposition to speak of, and a Parliament that is likely to back invocation via the EU Withdrawal Bill currently in the Lords, Theresa May can get on with the negotiations largely free from interference, her only concern the courts. Even if the negotiations with the EU start to go wrong, it’s not clear where voters turn to express their anger. Corbyn has set the narrative that Labour are not ready for Government, and the leader of UKIP Paul Nuttall appears to be setting his own narrative around failure with his dismal performance in 2 by-elections held on what should have been fertile UKIP territory.
So onward we march to Brexit. We don’t know if the Government will manage to get a good deal in its negotiations with Brussels, but then again, who is going to tell us if we don’t? History is written by the victors, and unless things change substantially in the next few years, the narrative will be that Brexit meant Brexit and we made a success of it.
Authored by Michael Stott