British politics will move both quickly and slowly

Pay particular attention to the slow stuff


British politics in 2018 will have only two speeds: prestissimo (very fast) and lento (slow). The prestissimo will be the drumbeat of repeated crises, as ministers threaten to resign and the government loses key votes in the House of Commons—and perhaps even the small but real possibility that the Conservatives will give up the ghost and the prime minister will call another election. But the most significant politics will take place at a much slower tempo: that of bureaucracies grinding out difficult decisions and party managers pushing through complicated legislation.

The main reason for Britain’s temporal disjuncture is, of course, Brexit. The Brexit negotiations will demand difficult decisions which will generate political crises. There is a strong likelihood that a leading politician will resign, given the divisions within the Conservative Party between those who want to leave the single market quickly and those who want to shadow it for as long as possible. Even if newspapers do not get the satisfaction of a spectacular resignation they will be fed a rich diet of stories about cabinet feuds. The closer Britain gets to the March 2019 deadline for leaving the European Union the more agitated the music of politics will become. 

Yet the negotiations will be slow, painstaking and above all dull. David Davis, Britain’s Brexit secretary, and Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, will spend much of their time locked in glacial struggles over details that look small to most people but which have huge long-term consequences. There will be a chasm between what the press focuses on and what actually matters. Irrelevant cabinet spats will generate front-page news (and perhaps real political crises). Meanwhile the results of vital but dreary diplomatic wars will be ignored. 

There are two reasons for the outward frenzy. The first is that Theresa May is leader of a minority government. In 2017, Mrs May decided to hold a general election (which involved breaking the intention of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act) because she thought she needed a clear majority to push through highly contentious legislation needed for Brexit, such as an omnibus bill translating European law into British law. Thanks to her disastrous election performance she now has to rely on the small Democratic Unionist Party from Northern Ireland to govern. 

This will put Parliament back at the centre of British politics after a long period in which Number 10 has been ascendant. Without a majority, Conservative whips will have to work overtime to keep their MPs in line. Backbench Tories will have more power than they have had since the 1990s. The Labour Party will engage in parliamentary manoeuvres to test Mrs May’s weak hold on power. Yet the government will probably get its way, grinding out majorities, pushing through bills and laboriously preparing the legislative ground for Britain’s withdrawal from the EU. The threat of crashing out of the EU without the necessary laws in place will be enough to impose discipline on even the most disorderly house. 

The other reason for hurly-burly is that the Tories have been in government for so long, as the senior party in a coalition in 2010-15 and in their own right since 2015. All governments become pressure-cookers if they stay in power for a long time. One reason is that people who are passed over for jobs lose patience. 

The effect is particularly bad in Mrs May’s government. Jacob Rees-Mogg is only the most colourful of a number of MPs who have grown tired of languishing on the back benches. The party has a wealth of talented MPs who won their seats in 2010 or 2015 and feel that they are being held back by ageing cabinet members who have made a mess of things. (Mrs May was 60 when she became prime minister whereas her predecessor, David Cameron, was 44.) Pressure-cookers produce periodic explosions. But the thing that really explains the eruptions is the slow build-up of steam.

Lento for Labour

Outside the government the other great theme in British politics will also be played in lento. This is Jeremy Corbyn’s preparation for power. Mr Corbyn will consolidate his control over Labour. The Corbynite faction in the party will establish an iron grip on decision-making organisations such as the National Executive Committee. Extra-parliamentary groups such as Momentum will use a mixture of pressure (threats of deselection) and patience (staying longer at every meeting) to bring local constituency MPs into line. 

Mr Corbyn will also conduct a permanent campaign, holding rallies in marginal Tory seats such as the Hastings constituency of Amber Rudd, the home secretary, and testing his political machine. At the same time Mr Corbyn will seek to present Labour as a government in waiting, producing policy papers, accusing the Conservatives of being in the grip of extremists and otherwise trying to capture the mainstream. 

Mr Corbyn has been cultivating the far-left fringe of the Labour Party since he was first elected in 1983, attending mind-numbingly dull meetings, chatting with single-issue fanatics and waiting for the inevitable crisis of capitalism. If anybody is prepared to deal with a politics played in lento and prestissimo, it is him.

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Credit: Steve Carroll
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