Is Theresa May the first Prime Minister to govern without any effective opposition?
Following the resignation of Nigel Farage in July, UKIP has lurched from one crisis to another, with infighting, factionalism and incompetence rising to the surface in the absence of the party’s charismatic former leader. The leadership election to replace Farage was a disastrous affair, as two of the party’s most impressive and well-known figures – Suzanne Evans and Steven Woolfe – were blocked from standing, and the eventual winner of the contest, controversial MEP Diane James, resigned as leader after just eighteen days.
James’ departure means Farage is back at the helm of a party that is increasingly looking like a one-man band, yet he insists that he has no interest in being a candidate in the upcoming leadership election. One man who was interested in running was Mr Woolfe, the man who would almost certainly have been elected in the summer if he had been allowed to run, and until this week he was unanimously considered to be the frontrunner. Young, handsome and coherent, Woolfe is a formidable and talented individual with the potential to carry UKIP forward into a new era, whilst his background as a mixed-race son of Manchester’s infamous Moss Side would have cemented the party’s working-class appeal and helped it to shed its xenophobic reputation.
Once again, it wasn’t to be. Earlier this month, Mr Woolfe was involved in a fight with fellow UKIP MEP Mike Hookem which left the aspiring leadership hopeful hospitalised, and yesterday he announced his resignation from UKIP, claiming that the party has descended into a ‘death spiral’ and become ‘ungovernable.’ Woolfe’s departure leaves UKIP without a credible leadership candidate for the second time this year, less than eighteen months after it won the third-highest number of votes in the 2015 general election.
The implosion of UKIP is good news for Prime Minister Theresa May, who has now been in Downing Street for over one hundred days. Mrs May has certainly had a turbulent start to her premiership, faced with the mammoth task of managing Britain’s exit from the European Union, yet she has been aided by a complete lack of opposition from any of the other major parties. As the official Opposition, it should be responsibility of the Labour Party to hold the government to account, but instead of fulfilling this task they spent the entire summer locked in a bitter leadership contest which ultimately failed to produce the desired outcome of ousting Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn’s victory has forced Labour MPs to come together in an artificial display of unity, but with tensions bubbling away it is only a matter of time before the party’s serious divisions rise to the surface again.
Riven with discord and seemingly irreconcilable differences, Labour is unable to provide the opposition that this country needs and is therefore failing in its duty as a vital check on the power of the government. The third-largest party in the House of Commons, the Scottish National Party, has been a much more powerful voice for an alternative approach, yet it is fundamentally unable to act as a national Opposition party as it only operates north of the border, whilst the chances of a Liberal Democrat revival remain minimal for as long as they continue to be led by the distinctly unimpressive Tim Farron. Within Parliament and the country at large, Theresa May faces an opposition whose fractures and divisions render it completely impotent.
All of this comes as the Prime Minister continues to spell out her own vision for the country, breaking with the elitist liberalism of the Cameron era to offer a very different approach. Blind adherence to free markets and open borders has been replaced by a more traditionally conservative view of state and society, upholding the market economy but recognising its limits and placing the interests of the British people above those of an international political and economic elite. In other words, May is pitching her tent directly on UKIP territory, reaching out to the working-classes in ways that no Tory leader has done since Thatcher.
With its economic populism, tough stance on immigration and support for traditional remedies such as grammar schools, ‘Mayism’ represents a new path for the Conservative Party, one which some are finding very uncomfortable to tread. A new Tory ‘awkward squad’ has emerged on the backbenches, a group of about twenty centrist MPs led by former Education Secretary Nicky Morgan and guided by their exiled spiritual leader George Osborne, and with their outspoken opposition to the government’s agenda of ‘hard Brexit’ they are seeking to hold the Prime Minister to account in a way that the other parties are failing to do. Theresa May has little to fear from the opposition benches, but as with previous Tory leaders she may find that her most vociferous critics come from within her own party.
Nicky Morgan’s small band of disruptive Tory rebels will certainly try to destabilise the government, bitter and resentful as they are at the result of the EU referendum and the agenda of the new Prime Minister. After all, these are the people who expected to control the Conservative Party for decades to come, the metropolitan Notting Hill liberals who propelled David Cameron to Number 10 and who spent the last six years looking down on the ‘backwards’ views of provincial suburbanites such as Mrs May. Therefore, the ostracism of such figures is good news for the Tory Party; whilst they must be given credit for moving the party into the 21st Century, they eventually did more harm than good by attempting to turn the Tories into a voice for the social and economic elites.
Brexit showed the extent of public fury towards those very same elites, providing the country with a much-needed reorientation towards a politics that works for everyone and that doesn’t dismiss the concerns of those who feel left behind by the rapid march of economic and cultural progress. In Theresa May, this new politics has a perfect figurehead, a down-to-earth vicar’s daughter who understands the importance that faith, family and community play to so many voters. If Cameron’s conservatism was a top-down attempt to impose metropolitan values on the wider country, Mayism represents a bottom-up approach that seeks to address the legitimate concerns of ordinary people.
Mayism is therefore as much of a threat to the Labour Party as it is to UKIP, providing the Conservatives with a potential outreach strategy to Labour supporters in the Midlands and the North. In such regions, Labour’s bedrock of support comes from a particular breed of working-class voters, blue-collar trade unionists who are patriotic, socially conservative and overwhelmingly white. Such voters have long supported Labour, primarily for geographical and class-based reasons, yet in recent years they have been wooed by UKIP and almost unanimously voted to leave the EU. As Labour continues to embrace the north London student socialism of Corbyn and his largely middle-class supporters, Theresa May has a perfect opportunity to convert huge swathes of the working-classes into Conservative voters.
The Prime Minister’s first one hundred days have been a success as she has beaten back her critics and committed herself to delivering Brexit whilst laying out a unique agenda for government. Nevertheless, any good government needs a strong Opposition, something which Britain currently lacks. The implosion of UKIP and the Labour Party are good news for the Tories and give Theresa May a clear path towards a resounding election victory in 2020, but for the sake of the health of our democracy it is vital that an alternative voice emerges. No party is good enough to rule without any accountability, not even May’s revitalised Conservatives, and whilst the current situation will aid the Tories’ electoral chances it could ultimately weaken their effectiveness in government.