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Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn have found it easier to promise change than to deliver it

Both leaders offered a rupture with their parties’ past. But there has been greater continuity than anticipated. 

In the great Brexit storm of 2016, Remainers and Leavers alike perished. David Cameron, George Osborne and Michael Gove were swept away. When the winds calmed, two “reluctant Remainers” were left: Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn.

Both are unusually resilient politicians. May led the Home Office – usually a political graveyard – for six years. She left the department as the longest-serving incumbent since James Chuter Ede in 1951. While her rivals foundered, May’s tortoise pace won her the premiership.

Corbyn was a Labour backbencher for 32 years, resisting overtures to abandon the party during the Blair-Brown era. He won – and retained – the leadership in defiance of more than 80 per cent of his MPs.

At the autumn conferences, May and Corbyn roused activists with promises of change. The Prime Minister would deliver Brexit, control immigration and open new grammar schools. The Labour leader would pave the way for “21st-century socialism”.

However, both have found that it is easier to speak of change than to deliver it. May’s speech on the opening day of the Conservative conference was designed to give Brexit unstoppable momentum. She vowed to trigger Article 50, the formal means of EU withdrawal, by the end of March 2017.

Had the Prime Minister called Labour’s bluff by announcing a parliamentary vote on the issue then, she would probably have won an overwhelming majority. Yet her decision not to do so has left the government mired in a court battle that all sides expect it to lose. Rather than the Brexiteers, it is the Remainers who have gained momentum. The government’s perceived aversion to accountability also helped the Liberal Democrats to victory in Richmond Park.

May, mindful of how Cameron overhyped his EU renegotiation, has refused to offer a “running commentary” on Brexit, but she has proved incapable of preventing her cabinet ministers from doing so. On 12 December, the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, publicly revealed his long-held private view that the UK should seek a transitional deal after leaving the EU (“No decisions have been taken,” a No 10 source told me). Boris Johnson told a Czech newspaper that the UK would “probably” leave the customs union. David Davis suggested that EU budget contributions could continue after
withdrawal. Brexit appears to mean whatever any minister wants it to.

If the test for May is to manage EU withdrawal, the test for Corbyn is to improve his party’s parlous poll ratings (as his allies Diane Abbott and Ken Livingstone have recently suggested). It was long argued that MPs’ fusillades were to blame; yet although the criticism has largely ceased, the opposition’s position has worsened. Labour has polled as low as 25 per cent (YouGov) and 27 per cent (ICM). It lost its deposit in the Richmond by-election and finished fourth in Sleaford and North Hykeham. Corbyn’s team maintain that their economic stance will prove electorally potent. If so, they will defy precedent: in every recent parliament, Labour’s poll ratings have only declined from this point in the electoral cycle.

Both May and Corbyn promised a rupture with their parties’ past yet there has been greater continuity than anticipated. May approved the Hinkley Point C nuclear power station and ruled out direct worker representation on boards. The changes in infrastructure investment and welfare spending have been modest, rather than transformational. Tory MPs question whether grammar-schools legislation will ever be brought before them. One suggested the boundary changes would be dropped for fear of defeat.

The Prime Minister rightly recognised that the Leave vote was not just a revolt against EU membership but a symptom of a much deeper desire for social and economic change. Yet the epic task of delivering Brexit will make it far harder to address the underlying grievances.

Corbyn’s programme, meanwhile, is increasingly reminiscent of Ed Miliband’s. He has abandoned his quest to make Labour an anti-Trident party and adopted a social-democratic economic approach. Pragmatism has trumped idealism more often than anyone expected.

Although May and Corbyn retain popularity among activists, they are far more isolated among their parliamentary parties. The Prime Minister lacks a faction of her own (one reason for her ascension). Corbyn boasts as few as 15 true believers. Both have back benches filled with high-profile, media-savvy critics: Osborne, Anna Soubry and Nicky Morgan on the Conservative side; Chuka Umunna, Michael Dugher and Chris Leslie on Labour’s.

But May and Corbyn face no immediate threat to their status. The Prime Minister wisely made Johnson, her greatest potential rival, Foreign Secretary, keeping him at a safe distance from Westminster. Her Chancellor has no desire to make the Treasury an alternative power base (although Tory MPs suggest Hammond could yet rise, in the manner of John Major). The Remainers lack the guile and organisation that made the Tory Leavers so fearsome.

Before Corbyn’s second leadership victory MPs spoke of waging multiple challenges. Having concluded he is unbeatable, however (“the membership is not for converting”, a backbencher said), they have muted their criticism in the hope that the leadership will “own” any general election defeat.

May and Corbyn have entered what Tony Blair described in 1998 as the “post-euphoria, pre-delivery” stage. Both must defy history to succeed. May must avoid becoming the fourth consecutive Conservative prime minister to be overwhelmed by Europe. Corbyn must revive the weakest-performing post-war opposition. But having survived 2016, May and Corbyn can be confident of enduring another year. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 15 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special 2016

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Michael Carrick is the “Geordie Pirlo” that England misunderstood

The Manchester United legend’s retirement announcement should leave Three Lions fans wondering what if?

That it came in the months leading up to a World Cup arguably added an exclamation point to the announcement of Michael Carrick’s impending retirement. The Manchester United midfielder, who is expected to take up a coaching role with the club afterwards, will hang up his boots at the end of the season. And United boss Jose Mourinho’s keenness to keep Carrick at Old Trafford in some capacity only serves to emphasise how highly he rates the 36-year-old.

But Carrick’s curtain call in May will be caveated by one striking anomaly on an otherwise imperious CV: his international career. Although at club level Carrick has excelled – winning every top tier honour a player based in England possibly can – he looks set to retire with just 34 caps for his country, and just one of those was earned at a major tournament.

This, in part, is down to the quality of competition he has faced. Indeed, much of the conversation around England’s midfield in the early to mid-noughties centred on finding a system that could accommodate both box-to-box dynamos Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard.

As time went on, however, focus shifted towards trequartistas, advanced playmakers and those with more mobile, harrying playing styles. And the likes of Jack Wilshere, Ross Barkley, Jordan Henderson and Dele Alli were brought into the frame more frequently than Carrick, whose deep-lying capabilities were not utilised to their full potential. That nearly 65 per cent of Carrick’s England caps have come in friendlies shows how undervalued he was. 

In fairness, Carrick does not embody similar characteristics to many of his England midfield contemporaries, including a laudable lack of ego. He is not blessed with lung-busting pace, nor is he enough of a ball-winner to shield a back four solo. Yet his passing and distribution satisfy world-class criteria, with a range only matched, as far as England internationals go, by his former United team-mate Paul Scholes, who was also misused when playing for his country.

Rather, the player Carrick resembles most isn’t English at all; it’s Andrea Pirlo, minus the free-kicks. When comparisons between the mild-mannered Geordie and Italian football’s coolest customer first emerged, they were dismissed in some quarters as hyperbole. Yet watching Carrick confirm his retirement plans this week, perfectly bearded and reflecting on a trophy-laden 12-year spell at one of world football’s grandest institutions, the parallels have become harder to deny.

Michael Carrick at a press event ahead of Manchester United's Champions League game this week. Photo: Getty.

Where other players would have been shown the door much sooner, both Pirlo and Carrick’s efficient style of play – built on patience, possession and precision – gifted them twilights as impressive as many others’ peaks. That at 36, Carrick is still playing for a team in the top two of the top division in English football, rather than in lower-league or moneyed foreign obscurity, speaks volumes. At the same age, Pirlo started for Juventus in the Champions League final of 2015.

It is ill health, not a decline in ability, which is finally bringing Carrick’s career to a close. After saying he “felt strange” during the second-half of United’s 4-1 win over Burton Albion earlier this season, he had a cardiac ablation procedure to treat an irregular heart rhythm. He has since been limited to just three more appearances this term, of which United won two. 

And just how key to United’s success Carrick has been since his £18m signing from Tottenham in 2006 cannot be overstated. He was United’s sole signing that summer, yielding only modest excitement, and there were some Red Devils fans displeased with then manager Sir Alex Ferguson’s decision to assign Carrick the number 16 jersey previously worn by departed captain Roy Keane. Less than a year later, though, United won their first league title in four years. The following season, United won the league and Champions League double, with Carrick playing 49 times across all competitions.

Failing to regularly deploy Carrick in his favoured role – one that is nominally defensive in its position at the base of midfield, but also creative in providing through-balls to the players ahead – must be considered one of the most criminal oversights of successive England managers’ tenures. Unfortunately, Carrick’s heart condition means that current boss Gareth Southgate is unlikely to be able to make amends this summer.

By pressing space, rather than players, Carrick compensates for his lack of speed by marking passing channels and intercepting. He is forever watching the game around him and his unwillingness to commit passes prematurely and lose possession is as valuable an asset as when he does spot an opening.

Ultimately, while Carrick can have few regrets about his illustrious career, England fans and management alike can have plenty. Via West Ham, Spurs and United, the Wallsend-born émigré has earned his billing as one of the most gifted midfielders of his generation, but he’d never let on.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.