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. 

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

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