Who will oppose a Conservative majority? Steve Barwick counts the ways…
The opinion polls are narrowing but even allowing for a 3% error margin in Labour’s favour (although historically they have under-recorded Conservative Party support) Theresa May on these figures will secure a majority in the House of Commons. In fact, the Conservatives only need to win 45 seats to have a ‘landslide’ – a total of 375 seats, more than 100 more than all the other political parties put together. The question on everyone’s lips – apart from whether the polls will continue to narrow – is, where will the opposition come from if she is triumphant on June 8th?There are at least seven – starting with two groupings from within the Conservative Party itself who potentially could cause trouble for Prime Minster May.
First, there will be those who are in favour of a hard Brexit such as John Redwood, IDS and Steve Baker who could become – like Major’s “bastards” – a thorn in her side. These will become more visible if the negotiations with the EU do not go well and no deal becomes a serious option.
Second, there are those who are more “continuity Cameron”, arguably more modernist, liberal and anti-Brexit, such as Nicky Morgan, Anna Soubry and Dominic Grieve. Cameron was keen to lose the “nasty party” tag and arguably succeeded with the introduction of gay marriage and the Northern Powerhouse. Chairman May’s manifesto with its pot pourri of pragmatic policies may neutralise this group for a while but once the honeymoon is over they are likely to remain, within and without the Government, important.
Third, whilst the Labour Party might be expected to implode if they are reduced to fewer than 200 seats, there will no doubt be Shadow Secretaries on certain specific issues where their oratory and grasp of the detail, as well as media savviness and dogged determination, will make them rallying points for opposition. One thinks of Keir Starmer on Brexit although there will be spokespersons from the SNP, Liberal Democrats and Greens – and backbenchers from across all parties – who will no doubt emerge to articulate public opinion extremely well. In addition certain Select Committee Chairs are sure to command respect as Dr Sarah Wollaston and Frank Field did in the last Parliament.
Fourth, the unelected House of Lords, where the Conservatives do not have an in-built majority, will be an increasingly important site for opposition to Prime Minister May although a landslide will, in all likelihood, diminish their enthusiasm in forcing issues to ‘fatal’ votes. In addition, specific policies included in the Conservative Party manifesto, for example on grammar schools and fox hunting, cannot by convention be opposed so whilst they can scrutinize they cannot stop legislation.
Fifth, the media in general – and the Evening Standard in particular – will feel it is their duty to hold Theresa May’s Government to account on issues that reflect their concerns. For example, we are currently experiencing relentless, and pretty much across-the-board, opposition to the open-ended nature of the Conservative’s ill-thought-through plans for social care – now amended.
What might be more surprising is the piercing nature of the Evening Standard’s critiques. Defending London – and the Northern Powerhouse? – from the shock of Brexit, as well as to some extent his own record in office, George Osborne has already revealed himself as a fearless critic. His report on the schools’ funding formula – where he quoted not the usual three but thirteen Conservative PPCs – was extraordinary.
Sixth, there will be other opposition outside Parliament to any all-conquering Conservative Party. We can expect mass demonstrations, especially when Donald Trump makes his state visit now expected in October, and more strenuous trade union activity, for example on public sector pay (which seems to have been omitted from the Conservative manifesto despite talk of the “JAMs”). The courts will no doubt also be busy with Gina Miller, ClientEarth and the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain already showing that it is possible to secure results via this route.
Seventh, Conservative Local Government will also be powerful – as they have already shown on social care, housing and education. In addition combined authorities will provide a new platform for opposition especially the three Labour Mayors – for Liverpool City Region, Greater Manchester and London – who will form a new triumvirate with capacity to make life difficult for the Government.
But Parliament will remain critical both for Theresa May’s new legislation – from Brexit to fox hunting, from grammar schools to social care – and for those new issues that will need to be raised. Knowing your way round Westminster and Whitehall, who’s who and what’s what, will be more important than ever. But it is clear a landslide would present new challenges for all those interested in influencing politics after June 8th.