Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Tuesday 13 June 2017

Conservative zugzwang

Would really like to get back to macro, as some interesting things have been happening, but there are just too many compelling issues following GE2017 to talk about first.

The GE2017 result left the Conservatives in a position that chess players call a zugswang, which means whatever you do makes your position worse. They needed to turn to the DUP to get an overall majority, which leaves them with a secure hold on power. But that move in itself will lose them some popularity, kills their ‘coalition of chaos’ charge, and runs the risk of damaging Northern Ireland. The Good Friday agreement says that the sovereign should exercise power with “rigorous impartiality”. It will be up to the DUP to persuade Sinn Fein that all they are getting from the government is extra money for Northern Ireland. So to hold on to power, the Conservatives put the Northern Ireland peace process in jeopardy and give a gift to Labour.

The Conservatives will not fight another election with May as their leader. Their MPs, whatever they may say in public, are angry at her incompetence in running a campaign, putting together a manifesto, responding to the press, and almost everything else. The longer she stays in post, the longer the memory of that dismal campaign lingers and the more the brand gets tainted. However an election to replace her will reopen the split over Brexit which could tear the party apart.

Here is a worst case scenario. After the referendum, the Remain half of the party were in shock, and so they allowed May to define what Brexit meant. She did it in such a way as to ensure Hard Brexit, which will inflict considerable damage on the economy. Remain MPs felt they had no way of resisting that (few tried), but as Ruth Davidson made clear in any election in the near future they will be less passive, trying to elect one of their own who will perhaps keep the UK in the EEA (a Norway type deal), and certainly stay in the customs union. Leave MPs will do everything they can to stop that, and it is difficult to see this time their candidate mysteriously withdrawing before the membership are consulted. The Leave membership, with the help of the press, will choose the Leave candidate. Ruth Davidson might then declare independence from the main party.

It could be a terrible mess, spread out over time. It is a contest which will allow, with delicious irony, Corbyn to describe the Conservatives as too hopelessly divided to govern. Furthermore if they hold the contest while the EU negotiations are going on, Labour will justly accuse them of wasting precious time. But if they leave any contest until after the A50 negotiations have ended, the less time a new leader has to improve the Conservative brand, particularly when their majority makes them look powerless and ineffectual. It is a zugzwang.

The same applies to how they turn their fortunes around. The obvious move is to abandon austerity. The agreement with the DUP and other factors mean that the existing deficit targets will not be hit, so turning the deficit into surplus appears a distant prospect. But ending austerity in the mind of the voter means spending more on the NHS and schools. It should also mean reversing the cuts to in work benefits. However to, for example, match Labour’s spending commitments with some attractive alternatives of their own without raising taxes will blow the deficit. That would destroy the ‘we are competent because we cut the deficit’ line so carefully built up over seven years. To raise taxes will damage their core vote. Once again, a zugzwang.

You can add immigration. Fail to meet their target once again, and their credibility on this issue will be destroyed, but try meeting it and the economy is in serious trouble. Of course none of this means that the Conservative are bound to lose the next election. As a Conservative Prime minister once said, events dear boy, events. But for the party it means the liklihood that things will get worse before possibly getting better.


  1. May got a Thatcher-sized majority of those voting, only this time Labour, unlike 1983, has been good enough to track her down.

    Thatcher really was lucky in her opponents.

  2. One reason why I prefer chess to reality is that there are rules. I think Gary Kasparov lamented thus when he entered politics. In politics there is no such thing as zugswang because the rules are endogenous to the game.

    If there is a lesson from GE2017, it's that of Nate Silver: The only thing that is predictable is unpredictability.

    Hence the next election is nowhere near in the bag for Labour. Corbyn's policy on Brexit is almost as messed up as that for the Tories. There are many things wrong with his domestic policy too. The Tories will as always be better resourced, and I would think it unlikely they will run such a pitiful campaign next time either.

    For example Tory divisions on Europe have been around for a long time. However, they're still here and they're still the government. Never underestimate how naked careerism goes before principle. I'm sure you're right there will be a leadership contest at some point, but watch how they fall in line after it.

    The worst mistake that progressives can make at this time is to underestimate the Tories.

  3. For a long time in the US, I've thought we needed a party realignment because the way things are doesn't "help us." The Republicans have gotten much more conservative and anti-government. There isn't really a center. But our two party system makes it very hard to re-align.

    But I read an article about the Sunday first round of elections for the National Legislature in France, and wonder if that is what is happening in France, the kind of party realignment over philosophy that is necessary in both the US and the UK.

  4. As only a small number of Tory/DUP rebels are required to make a hard Brexit impossible, (a softer Brexit can be supported by Labour MPs to drive it through), does this make it a possibility that the Tories could soften their approach to Brexit? If so where does that leave Labour, the only hard Brexit party?

  5. You can keep it coming a little longer. I have been on the wrong end of the down-pipe most of my political life and will take some catharsis while it lasts. I was big into humble pie futures and they're paying out a plenty.

    (I did start coming here for the macro though)

  6. The effect of the election ob Brexit has been much speculated about and there is now an assumption that "hard Brexit" (whatever that is) is dead and we will have a "soft Brexit" which will be much more palatable to Labour et al and be much easier to accept across the political spectrum.

    I do wonder if this is true. I think it quite possible that the EU will go for a more harsh settlement on the basis that we are now on the ropes and, if so, a settlement that reflects this view might well be seen as too much even for the Remain elements in the parties, being tantamount to humiliation and meaning that the referendum result cannot be respected in any significant way. In other words we might well be pushed into what is now termed "hard" Brexit rather than adopting it ourselves as May appeared to do. The mood music out of the EU has been, by and large, very aggressive and they may think that this election result will give them an extra edge whereas it may in fact make it just as likely that the result will be a hard Brexit. I have little faith in the EU that it might realize that the sensible thing to do may be to soft pedal on the rhetoric and not be seen as driving too hard a bargain rather than the reverse.

  7. I am gutted by Labour's loss because we must stimulate the economy but I have questions for English commentators who bring up the impartiality problem.

    - In 2010 the Tories had an electoral pact with the UUP to stand joint candidates for the Commons. None were elected; if any had been would this mean government impartiality was in question? Or that the Tories were putting the peace process in jeopardy in order to hold on to power? If the GB Tories had a Commons minority or otherwise?

    - Clinton's emails (those again) say Brown tried to negotiate a deal with the DUP after the 2010 election. If he succeeded would this have put the peace process in jeopardy? Would this have been inappropriate?

    - Labour is claimed to have more members in Northern Ireland than any other party here. Miliband ruled out allowing candidates to stand because of the need to be a "neutral arbiter". Understandably charges of bias might make negotiating with nationalist parties more difficult if Labour won seats here. Should Labour be allowed to stand here? Is it wrong to deny people the choice of voting Labour?

    - The Tories fight elections here but have only ever got councillors not MLAs or MPs. After the failure in 2010 they have separated from the UUP again. What about if Tory MPs got elected? If that is wrong, does it mean the Tories should stop contesting elections here?

    - If Dublin became sovereign over all of Ireland would it then be inappropriate for Ireland to include Sinn Féin in a coalition? Or what if SF was in government by itself?

    - The IRA still exists and has called off its "current campaign" but not renounced the right to use violence. Gerry Adams reaffirmed this speaking at the ard fheis in 2005. It still has millions from the Northern Bank robbery (after seizures) and any other fundraising since then. IRA members killed 2 men in 2015 with automatic weapons. Since the IRA can re-arm and come back and the UK government knows this, does it make UK policy to NI tainted by a desire to please Sinn Féin? Does this violate impartiality?

    - When Gerry Adams opposed benefit cuts in the 2010-15 parliament and said "peace process in danger", did this refer to the threat of the IRA? Was this an attempt to get the UK govt to violate impartiality? (Once the Tories got their majority he accepted the cuts)

    - By "damaging Northern Ireland" and "peace process in jeopardy" in your post do you mean govt bias raising the threat of the IRA or other republican terrorists (since loyalists don't mind the DUP)? Since the threat is always present does this mean the peace process is always in jeopardy? Does an attack have to happen before we know, and if so, does this mean any attack that happens is evidence of bias?

  8. After the election Corbyn immediately began floating the idea of forming a minority government even though the numbers in the House of Commons were obviously against him.
    Maybe I'm over-thinking this, but was his real intention to scare the Tories---desperate not to lose power---into supporting May despite their misgivings? "United" behind May the Tories stagger on into a s**t-storm of their own making (lasting until the UK leaves the EU?).

  9. As the person you quoted once said..... "It breaks my heart to see—and I cannot interfere—what is happening in our country today...... We used to have battles and rows but they were quarrels. Now there is a new kind of wicked hatred that has been brought in by different types of people."

  10. And this is why i voted Brexit,no where to hide! but i must admit it is 3yrs ahead of schedule thanks to May!

  11. Yes, but what about the Labour opposition? Peer beyond the euphoria of their better than expected result, they do not have a coherent position on brexit: keep the benefits of the single market and customs union but end free movement: brexit means brexit, in effect. John McDonnell has emphasised that we will be leaving the single market.

    Their position is logically inconsistent, although possibly tactically astute at a political level considered in the context of the last election, insofar that although the party benefited form positive swings 8%-10% in London and some areas that strongly voted Remain, but lost Mansfield (alan Meale), did not regain Copeland, and suffered negative swings across many northern seats that voted Leave: similar to the Tories, Labour fears losing their a core part of their electoral support if they reverse their brexit position.

    A declining economy linked to brexit uncertainty will impact negatively on the public deficit, which will not provide an amenable environment for a future redistributive programme piloted by a successor government taking up the poisoned chalice of brexit negotiations.

    Such a position, however will not survive much scrutiny now that the focus of public debate and attention has switched back to brexit - good news in that some of the realities connected to the consequences of the exit vote are rearing their head. Creative leadership will need to be displayed in setting out a brexit line that is both in the national interest and labour's election prospects. Where is that going to come from?

  12. zugswang, which means whatever you do makes your position worse.

    Zugzwang (not -swang) literally means to force a move, to force someone's hand. If put under Zugzwang, one can't be passive. It does not mean that action will necessarily make matters worse.

  13. Triggering Article 50 in March 2017 meant that the UK would leave the EU in March 2019 which is a couple of months before May 2019 when the next set of elections for MEP’s are due.

    Suppose events delay the date of Brexit to, say, September 2019. The UK would then surely be obliged to hold MEP elections---four months before leaving the EU. Elections mean campaigns, and campaigns mean public debate. Debate might concentrate the public mind only months before leaving the EU. Theresa May does not want that to happen.

  14. @Oliver: to be fair to SW-L he does spell zugzwang correctly in the title of his piece.

    My Random House dictionary describes zugzwang as: "a situation in which a player is limited to moves which cost him pieces or have some other damaging effect on his position"

    Is your definition of its meaning the German meaning of the noun Zugzwang (all German nouns begin with a capital letter)? It seems as if zugzwang is a German word which has been stolen by English in which it is used in its "chess meaning".


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