While the French gird themselves for a great struggle between the hard right and the forces of civilisation, represented by a banker with an insta-party, and shady details on his plans — or as a bunch of high school students protesting last Thursday put it, between “plague” and “cholera” — the English are getting on with a contest that many are describing as boring and unnecessary beyond belief. It isn’t, at least in its consequences, though the daily conduct may leave something to be desired. While Le Pen and Macron hold rallies, and tomorrow’s May Day celebrations promise to be a clash of two major forces in the street, the English poll is a long, grinding slog around seaside towns of south and north and small provincial southern cities close to. The provincial cities are where Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour is fighting for its life. Not for victory, or even advancement. God, no. This is about whether Labour can retain a foothold in a whole half of the country. Take a look at the map, and it’s pretty terrifying for Labour. In the south, outside of London, it’s a sea of blue, with Labour in university cities (Cambridge, Norwich, Hove), holding both Bristols, and only Exeter, Southampton, Luton (two) and Slough in the kitty as bog-standard seats. All except one of the Lutons and a Bristol are vulnerable, and if Labour cannot lift off from its 26-28% polling, then the blue tide will be undimmed. That would leave Labour as a de facto regional party, shorn of the south and Scotland, an extraordinary development, and a moment of history in the life of Anglosphere Labour parties.
That horror show has been mitigated somewhat by a slight rise in Labour’s polling: across three polls it is now nudging 30%. But with the Lib-Dems still in a slump at around 8%, the Tories have a commanding lead of 45-48%. That bulge would be especially felt in the south, where Labour only ever made headway in recent decades when that nice Mr Blair was in charge. The south got Blair right; Mr Tony is going around the country urging people to vote for Tories or Lib-Dems who are “remainers”. The Lib-Dems have been left shocked by their failure to lift off the bottom; they had hoped that they would benefit from Labour being unacceptable to people who hate the Tories as well. But Lib-Dem leader Tim Faron is an odd fish to be heading a left-liberal party. An evangelical Christian*, Faron couldn’t give an unequivocal “no” to the question of whether “gay sex” was a sin or not. Had he said “yeah, if it’s done right”, he’d have been off the hook. Instead the issue went for three days, and many who suspected that the Lib-Dems, having been a smooth but shady mob under Nick Clegg, were now a freak show, had “suspicions” no longer.
Jeremy Corbyn has had something of a lift in his image and approval, benefiting from the greater exposure, the sheer dead cat bounce effect, and the need for the papers to have stories to run. That has meant attention being turned to the slow Americanisation of British life — nurses having to use food banks, for example — and Corbyn’s attack style has improved, surprisingly forceful and confident. The Tories, once again with Sir Lynton Crosby at the helm — at least with the honorific, he no longer sounds like a Cotswolds village — decided on a preliminary “dead cat on the table” thing, with Boris Johnston going on the BBC Today program to call Corbyn a “mugwump”, speculation over the definition of which occupied the best part of a day.
That malarkey, to which the BBC cringingly consented to give its time, helped cover a continued second-rate showing by Theresa May (how strange French politics would sound with cricket metaphors: Petain played a straight bat, rather a googly for the Jews, etc), who has proven to be a brittle, imperious campaigner, getting increasingly irritated when questioned as to why an election was required at all, when she hasn’t lost a Commons vote on Brexit. Strong, her brand, was one thing; imperious is something else.
Nevertheless, she still looks like “the leader”, as Labour continues to focus on sectional issues. Big sectional issues, such as workers’ rights, but Britain retains such an imperial sense of self that people without roofs or teeth will still plump for “strong leadership on the world stage”. Corbyn’s statement on the UK’s “Trident” nuclear missile deterrent didn’t help; Labour’s policy is to back the full replacement of them. Corbyn said he would abide by party policy, but as PM, never use them. Renewable energy peaked as the nation slapped its forehead.
Labour had had some advantage from the strong showing by UKIP before the Brexit referendum. That is no longer. With its Punch-cartoon protagonist leader Nigel Farage gone, at the same time as its raison d’etre, two new leaders come and gone quickly, the Kippers are now under the command of Paul Nuttall, a dome-headed uni lecturer who bears a disturbing resemblance to Ade Edmondson in Bottom. Having hummed and haahed about running for a seat at all, Nuttall is running in Midlands’ Boston and Skegness — as he announced in, erm, Hartlepool in the north, because he happened to be there. The constituency voted 70% for “leave” in the referendum, but it has a solid Tory majority. UKIP had been making a feint to become a leftish nationalist party and colonise the north by taking Labour seats, but a disappointing showing in the Stoke byelection appears to have steered them back to the Tory heartlands. Had the Tories continued on a “soft” or “middle” Brexit path, UKIP would have a role. But if May’s Brexit had been any “harder”, the Royal Navy would be shelling Calais now. You can admire the political determination, to do everything required to keep the party together, including elevating a blond lump like Boris Johnson to be foreign secretary. But the country will pay for the spinning direction outward that it is being taken.
Barring something extraordinary — a wormhole in spacetime, sending Stalin’s Red Army back the other way? — there will be five years of solid Tory government, to see where we’re at when that happens. Between cholera and plague…
* Previous Lib-Dem leaders and grandees have included a man who was an accomplice after and maybe before a gay love triangle murder (Jeremy Thorpe); a morbidly obese paedophile (Cyril Smith); a rent-boy habitue (Simon Hughes); a mass murderer (David Lloyd-George, the leader of the Liberals) and a man who married a Spaniard (Nick Clegg). At least they’re trying something new.