Conservatives in control

The Conservatives are heading for a landslide victory that will provide the basis for Theresa May to exercise her promised brand of ‘strong and stable leadership’. The publication of the party manifesto next week will warrant detailed scrutiny. Recent signals on policies such as the proposed energy cap suggest that it will be of a markedly different character to the 2015 prospectus. While Theresa May has delighted the Tory right with her somewhat hard stance on Brexit – ruling out long term membership of the single market or the customs union and holding to a tough line on immigration and sovereignty – she is likely to curry less favour with her broader policy approach.

In contrast to the small state, low tax vision of Conservatism that adherents of Thatcherism would like to see, Theresa May’s manifesto is likely to be more interventionist in character. That could divide Tory MPs and so the outlook of new Conservative candidates is of some importance. Theresa May’s team have therefore closely controlled the selection process, blocking individuals who may prove problematic and helping those who should be on side. Hence, while the committed Brexiteer Dan Hannan was kept off the shortlist in Aldershot, elsewhere candidates with softer views were successfully adopted. An analysis by Sky News found that all but two of the 26 parliamentary candidates standing in seats deemed winnable said they wanted a free trade deal with the EU as opposed to simply leaving.

More generally, as the Times reports, the tight control of candidate selection by May’s top team has ensured a high number of former special advisers are standing, including Neil O’Brien and Alex Burghart from Downing Street, as well as James Wild, Meg Powell-Chandler and Will Gallagher. Such individuals are likely to be helpful in promoting the leadership line in the new parliament.

Labour in crisis

While the Conservative party appears ever more certain of winning a large majority, Labour is courting self-destruction. The leak of its entire manifesto was symbolic of the chaos and internal conflict that now grips the party. The leaked document itself was predictably pilloried in the right-wing media as a recipe for “dragging Britain back to the 1970s”.

The manifesto certainly contains some totemic left-wing commitments, such as the renationalisation of the railways, energy and mail sectors. But, as Paul Waugh notes, the document is better described as “turbo-charged Milibandism rather than a revolution”. It is 43 pages long and includes numerous spending commitments. A serious calculation of its cost implications would add up to a very big number. But as there is no prospect of Labour forming a government, no such analysis is needed.

For Labour, the 2017 election is not so much a fight for office but a battle for survival. That is evident in the geography of the campaign. Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell seem to be visiting seats with huge Labour majorities, whereas normal logic would send the party leader to marginal battles. But there is a view that the leadership knows defeat is certain and is intent on winning ‘vote share’ rather than seats, in the hope that a performance which equals Ed Miliband’s 30 per cent vote in 2015 would provide a basis for Corbyn to stay on.

Whatever the outcome, it seems unlikely that Corbyn could remain in position for the rest of the parliament. A leadership challenge involving a new slate looks inevitable, probably sooner than later. When it comes, the number of seats Labour has won will be of critical importance. In contrast to the Tories, the Labour leadership has not been getting its own way in selections. Prominent Corbyn supporters such as David Prescott and Sam Tarry lost out while more moderate candidates like Ellie Reeves (sister of Rachel) and Steph Peacock were selected for what should be safe seats.

This matters because future contenders in a Labour leadership election without Corbyn will (under current rules) need to secure the support of 15 per cent of their colleagues among MPs and MEPs. If, on June 8, Labour were to perform in line with current polling that would produce between 160 -180 MPs. Add in the 20 Labour MEPs and you have a threshold of between 27 and 30 supporters for any leadership contender to get their name on the ballot.

That consideration explains why Corbyn’s team were so keen to place supporters in safe seats. The fact they failed to do so in substantial numbers will be a worry. Ironically it could mean that the fewer MPs Labour secures overall, the better chance a hard left candidate has of retaining the leadership. The better Labour does on June 8, the more difficult it will be for a left-wing candidate to obtain the 15% threshold.

So for moderate Labour MPs (though they’d never admit it publicly), there is perhaps a sweet spot in which Labour does sufficiently badly to undermine Corbyn but not so badly that the leadership election candidate threshold comes within reach of the hard left. A very tricky balance, which promises to provide a nail-biting sub-plot to the election night story.