OOne way to make sense of current events in Britain’s Conservative Party is to see them as the unraveling of the changes Boris Johnson had wrought. It is true that the repudiation of the Cameron era in the aftermath of the EU referendum in 2016 opened the door to warmed Thatcherism, the much hoped for Singapore-on-Thames as Britain’s post-EU future . At the same time, some, including Theresa May, realized that the 2016 vote signaled something much deeper: a revolt by voters against a political class that had abandoned them. It called for a more interventionist state, tackling glaring regional inequalities, finally trying to fix the mess of British vocational training – themes and policies quite foreign to the soul of the Conservative party.
The Johnson-Cummings-Gove team in operation since the summer of 2019 continued this second program, to dramatic effect when Johnson won a huge majority in the December election. The neo-Thatcherites have not disappeared; indeed, they formed an essential part of Johnson’s government. But they were ideologically isolated, forced to swallow the political pivot to “race to the top” and the Conservative party’s electoral embrace of working-class voters in the North.
This new direction for the Tories has been electorally very successful, although the 2019 election had as much to do with disaffection at Corbyn as it did with support for Brexit and a hoped-for post-Brexit social dividend. And yet, curiously, he is repudiated by almost all the candidates for the Conservative leadership. One by one they pledge to cut taxes and return to policies much closer to the comfort zone of the Conservative party. Frontrunner Rishi Sunak, one of the architects of the government’s economic stimulus during the Covid-19 pandemic, recently pledged to lead the economy just like Margaret Thatcher did. Unless there is a candidate who emerges as the clear representative of an interventionist state committed to fighting social equality, it will leave a gaping hole in British politics. The theme that had animated our policy for years dissipated in a few weeks.
For Labour, this represents a huge opportunity. Since the 2016 vote, the party has struggled to think strategically about Britain outside the EU. When he should have been formulating his own vision for life after Brexit, much of his apparatus was consumed by the twin efforts of getting rid of Corbyn and fighting for a second referendum. Without any strategic thinking on the Labor side, the door was left wide open for Dominic Cummings, Munira Mirza and others to seize the moment, creating a large Conservative majority on the back of promises of a new, more interventionist state committed to reducing regional conflicts and social inequality.
The current leadership campaign and a general election, if it is to take place in the reasonable future, present Labor with a golden opportunity to claim the strategic Brexit ground. Committed to keeping the UK out of the EU, Labor can now develop a vision for the UK, which makes full use of the political and economic freedoms the UK enjoys by being outside the EU. If the EU represents an attempt to constitutionalize a set of economic imperatives – the free movement of goods, services, capital and people – as is generally argued on the political left, then being outside the EU offers the British left a huge opportunity to change this unequal relationship between political and economic goals.
Will the Labor Party seize this opportunity? Although the party appears keen on holding a general election, it is also likely to emulate the Tory kingpin, coming up with its own economically conservative plan while trying to keep Brexit talk to a minimum so as not to inflame Labor voters still hopeful. that the UK could one day join the EU. It would be a huge mistake. The electoral and political ground successfully claimed by Johnson is cleared. It would be almost unbelievable if the Labor Party did not try to become the party committed to the fight against the enormous social and regional inequalities of the country.
This would force Labor to reconnect with its own Eurosceptic tradition, one that rejected European integration because of the constraints it would impose on a national project of social and economic transformation. It would also force the party to think more deeply about Brexit than it has so far, and think about its vision and plan for the UK as a non-EU country. It’s a tall order given the party’s recent history, but the opportunity is there to be seized.