3 May 2019

The age of political volatility


Can it really be only four years since David Cameron was re-elected Prime Minister in the 2015 General Election?

His now infamous tweet on the Monday morning of the final week of his campaign captured his key theme:

Britain faces a simple and inescapable choice – stability and strong Government with me, or chaos with Ed Miliband”

For four days, it was a very effective message, helping David Cameron to clinch his surprise majority. If Britain had voted for stability, however, it did not get it. These last four years have easily been the most volatile, unpredictable and chaotic period in peacetime politics across the whole century since the franchise was expanded in 1918.

What lessons from this unprecedented period of change can we learn, and can we perceive what might happen next?

Firstly, volatility is the new normal

Even the May 2015 election result was rather deceptive. If Cameron’s re-election made it look like a vote for stability, it was still a night of unusually dramatic political shifts. In Scotland, the SNP went from a landslide to an avalanche, taking all but one of Scotland’s 55 seats, bringing an end to decades of Labour dominance over Scotland in Westminster.

The collapse of the Liberal Democrats, falling from 23 per cent to 8 per cent of the vote, was the largest collapse in vote share for any party, taking deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg from 57 seats to 8 and reversed half a century of electoral progress for the liberals.

The 4 million votes for UKIP was easily the largest ever vote share for a party that had not been in parliament at the previous General Election.

All three of those results are the type of shifts that rarely occur more than once in a generation, except they all happened in one night. But even those tremors were dwarfed by several much larger earthquakes in the next two years. Jeremy Corbyn’s victory in the Labour leadership election made a marginal faction of the Labour Party that had been dormant for thirty years dominant; the seismic vote for Brexit in 2016 combined with the discombobulating effect of Donald Trump’s election brought every assumption about the United States’ relationships with its allies into question.

In 2017, Theresa May made the most of the most commanding poll lead in recent decades by calling an election and once again made the case for stability in turbulent times. This time, the voters could not return a verdict. No party has ever lost so much public support during an election campaign.

Secondly, the mobilising power of defeat

“We are going to win so much that you are going to get sick and tired of winning” was Donald Trump’s rather characteristic boast on the campaign trail. Yet winning has become overrated in politics.

David Cameron did not get to enjoy the spoils of his victory. He took the features that worked so well in his 2015 campaign – such as asking voters to consider the risks of change and tactfully changing the subject whenever immigration came up – into the 2016 referendum, where they failed. Since the referendum there has emerged a new golden rule in politics: never defend the status quo. That was what Cameron did in his attempt to gain a hat-trick of referendum victories. He defended the status quo on the electoral system in 2011 and defended it against Scottish independence in 2014, before coming unstuck with the case for Remain.

Losing has become the new winning in these volatile times. Defeat in the independence referendum won the SNP a landslide. Labour’s General Election defeat generated Corbynism. The referendum defeat created Britain’s first ever pro-European movement. The victory for the leave campaign all but killed UKIP off in 2017, while the failure to deliver it has brought Nigel Farage back to centre-stage.

Theresa May’s surprise setback in June 2017 was of less use to her – partly given a two-year refusal to accept the implications of the result for her Brexit plan. Yet it is defeat which now keeps her in office. After suffering the biggest ever Commons defeat in modern political history, she has promised to step down as soon as she gets her deal through. It is her failure to unlock the Brexit deadlock that keeps her, at least temporarily, in office.

Thirdly, stalemate – and the power of ‘No’

Perhaps it is appropriate that the DUP have never been more central in British politics: it is an era when everybody knows how to say no – and to value the power of the veto – but also one where nobody can find the political or public support needed to make something happen.

The ERG, who voted three times against the Brexit deal had the power to block it, but not enough support to find another way of leaving. The Conservative Party is all but united in agreeing that the Prime Minister must go, because she can’t resolve the deadlock, but again, nobody wants to take over until a decision is made. Even the Labour Party now seems to have a decisive voice in determining the outcome, this when the party’s consistent approach of constructive ambiguity towards Brexit has been based on avoiding responsibility.

We are now in the “Zugzwang” phase of the Brexit debate – where somebody must move, but each move appears to make every other position worse. The basic choice remains: deal, no deal or delay, but the Brexit rules concerning indecision have held that any decision which can be deferred will be delayed. So another paradox of the age of volatility is that an era of dizzying change has resulted in everything seeming despairingly stuck: somehow we appear to have got chaos and stability.

As a political soap opera it would be entertaining if it were not so serious. The West Wing can hardly compete. But it is now impossible for anybody outside Westminster to get on with ‘business as usual’ when decisions made over the next six months will make such a profound difference in any of the many potential situations the country might find itself in. People may be at the mercy of events as varied as a Brexit decision, the election of a new Prime Minister, a general election or a second referendum.

In a parallel universe, would ‘chaos with Ed Miliband’ have involved bitter political rows over gas bills and climate change targets, or would a Labour-led government have struggled to hold off cross-party pressure for a referendum on the EU? Had David Cameron repeated his 2015 victory in 2016, would he now dominate British politics in the age of stability?  Or would the 1922 Committee be putting him under pressure to make way for Boris Johnson in order to see off a Farage-fronted Brexit Party that regards Cameron’s victory for Remain as “unfinished business”?

Everybody places less and less stock in political predictions but one thing we can be sure of is that the era of political volatility ushered in by that infamous tweet is far from over.

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Sunder Katwala is Director of British Future