(I am not saying it will happen, but it could…)
Prime Minister May waited for the cars to come for the State Opening of Parliament and reflected. The big change had come after the Labour Schism of autumn 2016.
The failed Parliamentary Labour Party coup of the summer of that year had led to the re-election of Jeremy Corbyn as the votes of supporters outweighed those of the Party’s members. As a result, the vast majority of MPs found themselves effectively at odds with the voting membership. They had two options: either to accept that Labour had become a party of the wider left, including the former Militant tendency and the Socialist Workers and people who had previously opposed Labour itself such as Greens and unattached radicals; or to maintain the party’s tradition of parliamentary sovereignty, as set down by its founders and set out in its constitution. All efforts compromise had failed, and the different visions of a progressive party became increasingly entrenched and estranged.
The result of the second Corbyn election was announced at the end of September, and within a week it was clear that the majority of the PLP would not accept his leadership. Labour party conference was a bloodbath, as MP after MP stood at the rostrum setting out how they would fight and fight again to save the party they loved, to be followed by CLP delegates and trade union leaders denouncing them as traitors, “Red Tories” and (in their eyes) most damning of all “Blairites.”
The low point came when the PLP staged a walkout during Corbyn’s Leader’s speech, when he compared them to Ramsay MacDonald: it was precisely the effect that the speech’s progenitor, Seamas Milne, had expected and desired.
And so the PLP became two groups: 140 traditional MPs, and 90 Corbynites. The latter also contained some soft-left faces, notably Andy Burnham (“showing solidarity”) as well as those who had received unexpected promotion in the pre-schism Shadow Cabinet resignation debacle.
The 140 rebels grouped themselves around a new leadership of Hillary Benn and Caroline Flint, and sought urgent talks with the Speaker in their bid to become the official opposition as “Labour Democrats”. However, to their dismay they found that they had been pre-empted by the Corbynites. These had already established their right to the title “the Labour Party” but had also been in secret talks with other parties. One of their rising stars, the ambitious MP for Norwich South, Clive Lewis had earlier in 2016 put forward his case for a Progressive Alliance, to include not only his version of Labour, but also Greens and nationalists. Therefore it should have come as no surprise when Corbyn presented his new Parliamentary grouping to the Speaker. His 90 MPs, plus 54 SNP, plus 3 Plaid Cymru and the Green MP Caroline Lucas became the opposition coalition.
As part of this deal, Lucas became Shadow Secretary for the Environment, and Angus Robertson became Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland. The latter appointment (and the arrangement with the SNP) caused outrage in the Scottish Labour Party, with mass resignations only averted by the astute move of its leader Kezia Dugdale to put the issue to the membership of the party in time for a decision at its spring conference in 2017. The result of this had been to face both ways: to support the Radical Alliance at Westminster while continuing to reject independence and to oppose the SNP at Holyrood.
Another turning point was the new leadership of UKIP. Its strategists had long seen the potential for the party to attract disaffected Labour voters in the same way as the SNP had done in Scotland, and the first move was to take steps to move on from the EU debate. To do this, they set out the future of the party not as UKIP the “UK Independence Party” but as UKPP the “UK People’s Party.” This was not only an echo of successful populist parties elsewhere in Europe (such as the Österreichische Volkspartei in Austria) but also a bold statement that it would attend to the issues of those who felt marginalised by “elite” traditional politics.
All this time, she remembered, Theresa May was busy with Brexit, and had no need or wish for a General Election. The deal which her government finally developed was an Associate Membership deal with the EU, which maintained the UK’s place in the Single Market but which allowed some extra controls on movement of EU nationals under some specific conditions. These would also be allowed to other member states by application, but required treaty change and therefore the consent of all national governments. And this was the downfall of the deal: a number of states did not ratify, so it could not be introduced.
The choice for the UK was either to accept a deal outwith the Single Market, or to abandon Brexit altogether. Having reached this crisis, May was handed a lifeline in the shape of the Boundary Commission review. This was worth another 50 seats to the Tories, on top of the gains that could be made on back of the disarray in the Opposition. She went to the country in May 2020, recommending that the UK should abandon Brexit as she could not recommend a deal to the UK which would not be economically ruinous.
The other issue which raised the political temperature was that of fracking. Following the cancellation of the Hinkley Point Nuclear Power Station, the May government had taken a strategic decision to protect the UK’s energy security by developing non-traditional gas extraction.
This was met by outrage by the liberal and green lobbies, and was the subject of mass demonstrations in all the major cities. The next step was a series of Green Camps at the prospective sites of fracking operations; both of these caused considerable civil unrest, as fracking became the most divisive issue in the UK since the Miners Strike of the 1980s.
It also became clear how the different parties would line up as the Radical Alliance put extra-parliamentary action above representative democracy, siding with those who advocated direct action and inevitably against the authority of the police and rule of law.
Against this background, the Labour Party was not only split between its membership and its MPs, it was in disarray over its organisation and its selection processes. Some CLPs had been swamped with new Corbynite “Momentum” members and set about getting themselves selected in place of sitting MPs. Other CLPs refused point blank to open the selection procedure against Labour Democrat MPs who were well-liked and established in the constituencies.
Many of these selections were unresolved as May called the election, so a patchwork of official/unofficial Corbynite/LabourDemocrat candidates emerged by Polling Day. The Radical Alliance sought to clarify its preferences by a Coupon Scheme, inspired by Lloyd George’s Liberal election tactic in 1919. In every constituency, there was single candidate designated as Radical who was recommended by the Alliance.
As the election results came in, it was clear not only that the Tories had won comfortably, but also that a major realignment had occurred in UK politics. The Radical Alliance lost half of its Labour seats, while retaining most of its SNP representation, although the Scottish Tories took five seats, mainly in the north and east of Scotland. Labour in England suffered badly at the hands of UKPP, especially in its former industrial heartlands. The UKPP case of course been massively boosted by the narrative of the betrayal of “Brexit means Brexit” – it was ironic that Labour, not the Tories, had been punished so severely. Nonetheless, the third party squeeze of the First Past The Post system and its own internal squabbles over the leadership of the party restricted the UKPP advance to 85 seats.
As a result, the rump of the old Labour Party as reduced still further to 52, many in London (the number of MPs led by Clem Attlee in 1935, the optimists pointed out.)
So that was the outcome of the 2020 General Election: Tories 389; Radical Alliance (inc Corbynites) 90; UKPP 85; Labour Democrats 52; LibDems 15; Northern Ireland 18; Speaker 1.
Mrs May had a good working majority and mandate to row back from Brexit, and the left was out of power indefinitely. There would be trouble ahead undoubtedly: UKPP would continue to gnaw away at its bone of grievance, and was likely to become the official opposition if it could transform its populist appeal into seats with better organisation and professional campaigning. Likewise, SNP would keep beating the independence drum, although the Scottish population had cooled its enthusiasm as the economic prospects outside the UK and the EU looked worse and worse. 2014 had been the high water mark, and the tide was going out steadily.
The economic disaster of Brexit has been averted, but she wondered at what cost?
These were the thoughts that began to increasingly preoccupy her as she began to look through the reports of the post-election riots: in all of the major cities, Radical Alliance demonstrations had sought to occupy public spaces and buildings as the Tory government had been returned. In Scotland, the Scottish Parliament had been occupied by Radical independence protesters. The police had fought running battles with UKPP crowds that had gathered to protest against the “betrayal” of Brexit. In the northeast of England and on Merseyside, the Radical Alliance and UKPP mobs had fought each other for control of the streets.
Mrs May looked out from the window of her Downing Street office and pondered that she had gained the leadership of her party and her position as PM easily, almost by default, and the collapse of the parliamentary opposition had made her election victory nearly as easy. But the task of government that had fallen so easily to her was looking more difficult than that of any of her predecessors since Churchill in 1940.