There is a sense of real spiralling decline about British politics right now. The Tories appear to be in full kamikaze mode. Their plane has lost an engine and the last drops of fuel are being siphoned out of their depleted policy tank. The BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg tweeted that the average age of the party member is now 71. Some observers claimed this was fake news, but it seemed for a brief moment all too plausible.
Freezing student loans or offering more money for people to buy their own homes just aren’t dramatic enough gestures for the scale of resentment. When you’re a teacher or doctor, aged 35, and you’re sharing a room in a communal house in London, you might indeed feel you were being treated with contempt.
The Tories have no big ideas. Theresa May spouts half-hearted platitudes. And her leadership rivals look woeful. The only remotely credible candidates currently have long odds at the bookies. Sajid Javid, for example. Or the talented Ruth Davidson, who can’t currently compete because of the fact she doesn’t represent a Westminster seat.
The Conservative collapse is a big challenge to the so-called Centrist Dads. We CDs are ridiculed by Corbynistas as the people who despair of the Tories and Brexit, but have been hostile over the past two years to Jeremy Corbyn. I did indeed vote Lib Dem in the 2017 election, albeit in a constituency where my Labour vote has previously helped the Tory win. For the first time in my life, I made the ‘tactical’ leap, because the alternative was going to be a pathetic abstention.
Now, when I survey the political scene, an obvious truth is staring me in the face. My ranting about Jez is really not going to help anyone. I have been negative and angry for a couple of years and it’s unproductive – both at a personal and political level.
As the Tory conference unfolds, it’s time to state the obvious. People are turning to Corbyn because they are getting increasingly frustrated and desperate. And he represents some kind of alternative to the status quo.
Jez, for all his faults and profoundly unsavoury history, is someone who rocks the boat and offers hope to people who feel that the current economic system gives them little. While it’s clearly fanciful to believe there’s some kind of intellectual renaissance on the left (as claimed here in a baffling FT article) or that Corbyn can deliver on his overblown promises, I accept that it matters not one jot right now.
We are heading for a period of tumultuous change and uncertainty. Almost anything can happen. The Tories might pull themselves together, even though they show little sign of it now. If they dumped May and plumped for a leader from outside the obvious group of candidates, I think Corbyn might have good reason to be unnerved. But any change of leadership would need to be accompanied by a new sense of direction and policy definition. Are they really up to the challenge?
If Corbyn’s dream came true and the Tory government collapsed, forcing an election, it seems entirely possible that he could now win – something I admit I never believed I would ever write.
Nevertheless, the campaign would be far more difficult for him this time, as his fence-sitting over Brexit would no longer wash. The Remain voters who flocked to him in June would need to know for certain that he was committed to the idea of a soft Brexit at the very least. And that leaves him vulnerable in the pro-Leave Labour heartlands.
So we drift towards disaster with the divided and incompetent Tories. Or we embrace, by default, a Labour Party in the hands of hard-left ideologues. We career towards hard Brexit and long-term economic decline or we do our best to stay in the single market and accept freedom of movement, provoking a cultural and political backlash from outraged Leave voters.
I’ve followed British politics in depth since my early teens, way back at the start of the 1980s. For the best part of 20 years, I was engaged as an activist and candidate. Never have I felt such a sense of profound unease about what’s to come. I glimpse an all-consuming cultural war looming with the nation divided along a variety of fault lines: rich and poor; old and young; urban and provincial; left and right.
The next year will be critical and may give us greater clarity over what lies ahead. But unpredictable events abroad add another dimension to our current woes. Not least the possibility of war between the United States and North Korea, which is likely to prove the biggest conflict in half a century and have a huge impact on the global economy, as South Korea, Japan and China would soon be directly involved.
As the world polarises and extremes assert themselves, history tells us that heartache will follow. Tomorrow will offer little refuge for a Centrist Dad.