Since the Copeland and Stoke-on-Trent Central by-elections last week, the media have paused in their condemnations of Jeremy Corbyn only to sing the praises of Theresa May.
The BBC’s fawning over her has been particularly revolting, and the Financial Times newspaper declaimed, “Theresa May has confirmed her dominance of Britain’s political terrain with the Conservatives’ historic by-election win in the Labour seat of Copeland strengthening her position as she prepares to negotiate Brexit”.
In a more thoughtful take from the left, journalist Paul Mason writes, “The two by-election results taken together do reveal a big and challenging fact for Labour.
“In these two very different working class English seats, there is a majority for Brexit, and for the right wing nationalist rationale behind it.”
What is true is that May and the Tories are making the running in British politics today. Only they seem to have a coherent story about how to respond to the vote to leave the European Union (EU).
A fundamental factor here has been the weakness of the Remainers.
Columnist Andrew Rawnsley wrote in the Observer newspaper a few weeks ago, “While the hard Brexiters were busy stretching the meaning of the referendum to fit their desired outcome, the stunned Remainers were still winded from their defeat.
“Slowly, those who wanted to preserve a close relationship with our neighbours began to get their act together. But they lacked the organisation, the energy and the unity of their rivals.”
From the centre leftwards we see the Remainers split. On the one hand, we have the bitter-enders—Tony Blair, the Green Party, the Liberal Democrats, and a radical left fringe. They want, against the odds, to reverse the referendum result.
On the other hand, the bulk of the Labour right have accepted the Tory interpretation of the vote as racist. So they have pressured Corbyn to abandon his support for freedom of movement for European workers.
Faced with these divisions, it hasn’t been hard for May to reunite the Tories. She has come up with a position that sounds like hard Brexit but fudges how sharp a break with the rest of Europe leaving the EU will involve.
May has of course been helped by Ukip’s disarray, summed up by Paul Nuttall’s shambolic by-election campaign in Stoke Central. But this doesn’t mean that things will continue going May’s way.
Once she triggers Article 50 to leave the EU in a few weeks’ time, the serious negotiations with the rest of the EU will start. May’s fudge will quickly unravel—particularly if the Europeans insist that Britain must pay a huge bill for leaving before crucial negotiations on trade begin.
May’s path has been eased by the fact that the referendum vote was not followed by the collapse of the economy.
The Treasury and the Bank of England had predicted that it would. On the contrary, economic growth accelerated towards the end of 2016.
But what the growth has been driven by is consumer spending. This in turn has been made possible by households cutting saving and borrowing more.
Consumer credit rose 10.8 percent last year. In the second half of 2016, two other drivers of growth—investments and net exports—gyrated wildly, cancelling each other out, though the figures may have been distorted by big gold sales. Productivity continues to stagnate.
This is not the basis of a sustained economic boom. The big drops in the pound after the referendum and the Tory party conference are pushing the rate of inflation up as import prices rise.
This will squeeze wages and may undermine consumers’ readiness to borrow and spend.
So May’s supremacy won’t last. This underlines the importance of the left offering a bold and radical alternative to neoliberalism and racism for Britain after Brexit.
Corbyn is very well placed to offer such an alternative. The future of his leadership depends on it.