Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Thursday 30 August 2018

Conservative Zugzwang Redux

After the 2017 General Election, I wrote a post about how, whatever the Conservatives did next, they would make their position worse (a situation called ‘zugzwang’ in chess). In that post, by taking a piece of received wisdom as given, I underestimated the hole they were in. The mistake I made was to assume that by 2021 the Brexit issue will have been put to bed and a new Conservative leader would be elected in time to fight the next election.

The error was to underestimate the determination of the Brexiters to keep the issue alive. If a deal is made with the EU and parliament accepts that deal (both big ifs) it will be on terms which Brexiters find more intolerable than being in the EU. We will be in the customs union and at least part of the single market: pay, obey but no say. The reasons that the Brexiters will keep complaining about that kind of Brexit is partly because they cannot stop themselves, but mainly because they need to keep the issue alive to obtain the prize of the Tory leadership. In this they will be helped by the return of UKIP talking of the Brexit betrayal. The received wisdom after the 2016 vote that the Brexit vote would end this fatal division among the right of UK politics was another mistake. 

That leads to the ultimate zugzwang: Remain Tory MPs cannot risk May departing from the scene, because if she does the solid Leave majority among members will vote in a Brexiter. The Conservative zugzwang is even worse than I thought in that earlier post. If MPs vote through an EU deal and we enter transition there is a good chance Theresa May will fight the next General Election. What seemed unthinkable after 2017 now seems most likely. We know from 2017 and the immediate aftermath of the Grenfell tragedy that May is the type of leader that makes the most of Corbyn’s qualities.

It is worse than that. The issue of ‘Brexit betrayal’ will remain alive until 2022. UKIP will start taking votes from Conservatives more than they take votes from Labour, because Leavers are more likely to be Conservatives. That does not mean Labour are bound to win in 2022. The Conservatives will try their best to convince voters that Labour under Corbyn will tear the UK's economy and foreign policy apart even more than the Tories have done. But an actual or impending end to transition will not be sold by the Conservatives as a triumph but instead will remain an existential threat to the party.

If this happens, Labour’s position becomes much easier. From the moment Labour vote against the deal and if we leave in March 2019, the pressure on Labour to adopt a clear Remain stance will ease and they can focus on the damage the deal will do to the UK. The focus will move to how we can improve ties to Europe compared to the final settlement rather than how we can avoid leaving. If they are smart they will play on who will replace May, and what a Conservative government with Rees-Mogg or Johnson as Prime Minister would be like.

This is the real significance of the next election whenever it comes. It is tempting for many to see this as a battle between extremes, with the two main parties being forced away from the centre ground of politics by their memberships’ ability to choose their leaders. In reality any Labour government under Corbyn or any successor will follow a centre-left agenda because the overwhelming majority of their MPs are that way inclined. Whatever some centrists may say now, from their point of view a Labour government will be mostly harmless as well as doing the economy a lot of good.

Divisions within the Conservative party over Brexit are far more fundamental, because the number of Brexiter MPs are much greater. As their membership is that way inclined they could quite quickly become a majority. A Brexiter leader seems inevitable before that point, and the last two years have taught us that the internal resistance to that among MPs will be pretty weak. Tory Remain MPs have a fatal weakness, which is that they value party unity much more than their Brexiter opponents.

Once the Brexiters have captured the leadership, they will of course attempt to achieve a much greater break with the EU than anything May negotiates. No referendum will be necessary, because they will only be achieving the true ‘will of the people’. With that is bound to come a much more authoritarian and illiberal regime, partly because the Brexiters have no problems with that as we have seen, but also because it will be required to retain power. The Conservative party will become very like today’s Republican party in the US.

The question that everyone besides Brexiters should be asking is how their eventual domination of the Conservative party can be stopped. The only way I can see is for Conservative party members and their supporters in the press to see how damaging that position is, and the only way I can see that happening is by the Conservatives becoming the natural party of opposition as a consequence of Brexit.


  1. With Corbyn at the helm, the LibDems will suck a lot of votes from Labour. If things go really south, Labour might split, which would practically ensure Conservative victory. Even otherwise, with a bit of help from the media and Russia, Conservatives still stand a pretty good chance.

    A lot of the right wing (Brexiters, Republicans) just don't care about democracy any more. Many are probably contemptuous of the people they're supposed to represent. As long as a lot of people including centrists and the media continue to be in denial about this, the US and the UK will probably go the way of Hungary or Poland.

  2. This post argues a) that once we leave the EU in March, most Tory MPs will oppose any further distancing from it b) that they will therefore support Mrs May in the no confidence vote likely next year c) that she will therefore survive. All three of these are doubtful. The Tories will probably lose the 2022 election anyway if people’s standard of living is still no higher than in 2010. But their prospects are brighter than you say, simply because they can get rid of a bad leader through a no-confidence vote and Labour, as they found out in 2016, can’t.

  3. If the disparity between the percentage of the total votes and the percentage of parliamentary seats is as great as it was it 2015, UKIP voters will feel massively cheated yet again.

    But what about all those newspapers who are more UKIP-inclined than Conservative-inclined?. Will they regret their support for the First-Past-The-Post? Will they start agitating for Proportional Representation?

  4. " the Conservatives becoming the natural party of opposition" the best bit of news that I have read this year.

  5. The balance of forces are not as tidy as the prof. lays out here. Whilst it is true that conservative voters were more likely to have voted leave than were Labour voters the fact remains that, at the time of the referendum, seven out of ten Labour held seats voted leave. That is not a negligible number.

    In other words winning a Labour Parliamentary majority on a remain platform will be far more difficult than is acknowledged here. If the Labour remain vote continues to be dispersed and the Labour leave vote continues to be concentrated in Labour held constituencies then the chances of Labour winning a Parliamentary majority on a remain agenda are substantially reduced.

    The assumption may be that Brexit doesn't matter to the millions of Labour voters who supported it at the referendum and who then voted for a 2017 Labour manifesto that committed to keeping the UK out of both the single market and the customs union. This does not seem to me to be a safe assumption. Andy Burnham has made repeated attempts to explain these electoral facts of life to the party and his warnings should be heeded if only because he is far closer to the critical mass of Labour voters in Labour held constituencies.

    A refusal to consider all the relevant data is just another sacrifice that critical thinking has had to make in favour of the motivated reasoning that underpins the remainer belief system......

  6. The statement that 'From the moment Labour vote against the deal and if we leave in March 2019' puts unwarranted store that a deal can pass Parliament without Labour support. And we don't know yet what May will present to Parliament for approval, post-Brussels negotiation.

    Chequers Mark 2 could involve the UK accepting an equivalent customs union (CU) and connected continuing harmonization to EU rules for goods for an extended period after its formal exit from the EU, up to point when alternative trading arrangements can be put in place.

    That would resolve the NI backstop for the foreseeable future and preserve for both parties the vital and not-to-be-lost continuing benefit of frictionless trade in goods. Some creative fudge could also be applied to how freedom of movement would operate under it. Such a ‘least-bad’ option would mitigate the economic harm of Brexit. Such a deal is also most likely to secure the support of the ‘sensible majority’ in Parliament, preventing the need for another Brexit-related general election or referendum, both of which are more likely to cause more problems than solution, compounding divisions within and between the constituent countries of the UK.

    If so, a case based both on the national interest and party interest could exist for the Labour leadership to refrain from imposing a three-line whip to vote against it, as argued in:

    Enough Tory hard-Brexiteers can be expected to vote against any variant of the Chequers to result in Parliament voting it down in the event of Labour imposing a three-line whip against it. No responsible government (or opposition, for that matter) should countenance the most economically damaging - and quite likely politically and socially calamitous – no deal exit. A ‘What next for Brexit’ winter general election would tend to expose both parties’ Brexit-fault lines. It could well take away from the Labour leadership its ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ chance to implement its transformational programme: its overriding priority.

    Faced with an impending ‘No deal’ exit, Parliament is more likely to be roused to insist on a second referendum, which possibly could then be framed between leaving with no deal and extending Article 50 and staying in. That is why it is right that Labour should keep its options open on the principle of a ‘People’s vote’, and not shoot its bolt by bowing to pressure from Best for Britain’ at this month’s coming conference.
    Certainly Labour could, and should, not allow a ‘no deal’ exit to proceed. A transitional period would only be ushered-in if some variant of Chequers was approved by Parliament, which, as above, cannot be expected, if Labour voted against it.

  7. Without even predicting the future, as it stands the Tories have proven their absolute incompetence to even lie about their real intentions. Their agenda is clear as is the EU, the Tories are dismantling the state and want to set up a trade deal with Trump. The fact that we have nothing of consequence to trade appears to pass so many by, that I wonder just how many are actually awake in this country.

    For those that cruise the social media, it should be obvious to most that the Tories are in what could be terminal decline, and according to their list of financial donations are mostly living off those that have already passed away, rather than living members.

    Instead of pontificating on what might or might not be, we should be concentrating on how this country can fund its own investment in order to create a society that is fit to live in.

    I can only say that the dystopian future the Tories offer is something I think most will reject, and that Europe is travelling down the same road to ruin.

    People everywhere need to wake up, life just doesn't have to be this way.

  8. " In reality any Labour government under Corbyn or any successor will follow a centre-left agenda because the overwhelming majority of their MPs are that way inclined."

    This statement is contrary to the policies presented in the Labour manifesto at the last election. Are we then to assume that the next manifesto will be more measured or are we to assume that it can be disregarded?

  9. When I wrote on this blog just after the referendum result that for the first time the press had power with responsibility, you can now see the bind they have put themselves in.

    If the Conservatives get a deal with the EU, if the Conservatives go for no deal, or if the Conservatives decide to stay in the EU, they will take the blame for the failure of their policy.

    The Labour Party really did get their perfect election result in 2017.

  10. There is another factor in play here. Labour have a long & proud history of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory over the last 40 years. I would say the Tories best chance is to drag this out until 2022 (They won't win by extending it beyond that - the intent would be too obvious). The EU will accept this. Yes, eventually, they will have to commit to a fatal move, & inflict the Zugzwang position upon themselves, because they are the government & they held the referendum. They 100% should deal with it. However, this is 100% not possible.

    However, that gives Labour 3.75 years to do something really stupid, to end up getting the blame, & to eventually let them off the hook. Labour needs to be quiet & do nothing & UKIP will eventually act as a PacMan function on Tory voters this time. But Labour is not good at quiet & patient.

    I call it 50-50 at the moment. I really can see the Brexiters, with no intention of talking to the EU, staging a coup at a time of their convenience and just leaving, scroo-yoo style. But I expect this would put them in opposition for a long time. All remainers would hate it, & most Brexiters would hate it too. That's the essential problem. Whatever deal you come back with, 60-70% are going to dislike/hate it. If no deal, probably more.


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