A month ago, I published an article on this site about the existential threat faced by the Conservatives. Four weeks on, and that ‘Tory Armageddon’ appears shockingly imminent, indeed, the ‘Extinction Level Event’ may already have occurred and we are witnessing the end of the Party. The cut up membership cards have morphed into ballot papers, some eloquently defaced by variations on the theme of “None of these choices deliver Brexit”, others have dished out yet another resounding defeat in the local council elections, where the Tories lost more than 1,300 councillors, chalking up yet another abject failure in the long, record-breaking catalogue of woe that is the May leadership.
Of course, they weren’t alone, as I predicted they wouldn’t be. Indeed, Labour’s losses were numerically less, but in some ways more spectacular. The loss of 82 councillors after nine years of Conservative Government, and three under the leadership of the ‘worst PM in history’, is really quite some achievement. Councils like Barnsley, Bolsover, Bolton, Darlington, Hartlepool and Middlesbrough, where traditional loyalties seemed so deeply embedded that they were practically geology, all lost Labour majorities. Far from voting tribally, it turns out our recalcitrant Friends in the North don’t much like being ignored, either.
And yet, here we still are. Day 45 since we didn’t leave the EU. It is like a nightmarish conflation of ‘Lost’, ‘The Walking Dead’ and ‘Groundhog Day’. May clings on, like an obdurate limpet. The ill-advised and hopefully ill-favoured talks with Labour wear on, with the idiocy of a permanent customs union and the democratic abhorrence of a Second Referendum still ‘on the table’. In some mahoghany-clad committee room, the men and women of the ’22 mutter dark thoughts about dark deeds, banging desks when they can stir themselves from their torpor. Occasionally, they awaken long enough to send Sir Graham Brady out to intone gravely about ‘May’s departure plans’ before sliding back into complacent otiosity.
Meanwhile, leadership hopefuls circle. We are told they are waiting to pounce, but Conservative MPs – who would have guessed? – are typically vultures, not predators; so very much more inclined to watch and wait rather than to act; unwilling to sully their hands, and hoping to capitalize on some other contender’s misfortune or mistake before taking their chance to capture the carcass. Labour, too, remain dishonorably on the fence, determined not to determine on anything approaching a policy; committed only to evasion, prevarication and irresolution. And so, May drears on, shored up by her advisors and the dark arts of the Whitehall mandarins. A Prime Minister, and a Government, in name only.
Yet, for all the agony of this paralysis, and the seemingly endless, hopeless circling of the drain, the mood has changed somewhat from when I wrote a mere month ago. There is a sense of possibility, hope; dare I say, optimism? The miserable grey pall is finally lifting. Farage has arrived, with his merry band of democratically-inclined women and men and the welcome alacrity of a tropical sunrise. In just four weeks, the Brexit Party has gone from a standing start to 34% in the EU polls, more than Labour and the Tories put together. More astounding still, they have relegated the Tories to third place for the General Election, reaching 20% in the Com Res poll of Westminster voting intentions. It is an incredible achievement; a thunderous assault on the cynical status quo, and a damning indictment of the complacency and arrogance of our elected representatives. It should also be a wake-up call, but we’ve been telling them for years and they don’t care. Who really expects that they will now start to listen?
So what happens next? Probably not much. There will be threats. There will be tweets. There will be the endless mawkish refrain of the FBPErs. At some point, May will attempt, yet again, to pass her ‘deal’ through the House. Without Labour support, this will prove futile. The Brexit Party will win the Euros and there will be yet more ‘repeated calls’ for May to go. JRM will cite some article about Boris and the leadership. The ’22 will meet, promising action next week, next month, sometime, never. Owen Paterson or Marcus Fysh, Steve Baker or Sir Bernard Jenkin – heroes all – will write yet another Telegraph piece, gallantly attempting to persuade their colleagues of the possibilities of a WTO exit. They will also refuse, thank the Dear Sweet Holy Lord, to capitulate to the horrors of May’s Surrender Treaty. For that alone, we owe them a huge debt of gratitude, but it still isn’t enough to save the Party.
God only knows how long it will limp on. After we are supposed to leave on Hallowe’en? When they get the chance of a new Vote of No Confidence come December? Who can fathom the minds of Tory MPs and Party apparatchiks, who are now not merely looking down the barrel of a gun but directly at the nose of a nuclear warhead? It isn’t even clear to me that this decline can be reversed, despite the Great White-blond Hope that is Boris. Indeed, so great is the disconnect between the Government and the governed, it may well turn out that – to pinch a nice line from Tim Price – “These are the reflexive spasms of a dinosaur shot through the brain that doesn’t know that it’s dead yet”.