It seems unimaginable that we could suffer the political upheaval on anything like the scale we saw in 2016, but then again we said that in 2015 too. The future seems hazy at best, with question marks becoming a permanent feature on most politico’s checklists.
- What does Brexit really mean?
- Will the NHS be given the funds it needs just to operate on a basic level?
- Grammar Schools? Seriously, though?
- Trump? Putin? Le Pen?
- Did R.E.M. really predict the end of the world? And do I feel fine with that?
What is clear, however, is that 2017 represents a critical juncture for the leaderships of Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn, with only one of them likely to see a positive outcome.
Although Theresa May was certainly provided with one of the more tricky job handovers, it was widely expected that the former Home Secretary, with a reputation for zealous attention to detail and seen as a competent safe pair of hands, would slot seamlessly into the role of Prime Minister. Her leadership campaign and subsequent cabinet appointments seemed to confirm this, with a masterclass in ruthless efficiency on show. Calls of a snap election left the Tories elated with the prospect of a thumping majority on the horizon while Labour types were too busy pulling each other bits to really notice their impending doom.
In the end, talk of snap election never became reality and the previous assumptions we all held of May started to fade away. Her ruthlessness gave way to indecisiveness, attention to detail was swapped with vacuous slogans and the perception of a calm persona was chipped away by hints of a thin-skinned nature.
Her regular public put downs of her Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, the bizarre Deloitte memo leak and wardrobe related friction with Nicky Morgan have all indicated that something is not all OK within the May camp.
Jettisoned former Ministers have begun to offer up thinly veiled dissenting comments towards their former colleague and May and her new cabinet are struggling to keep the same message discipline as their predecessors. David Cameron may have been as equally vague and no committal as May on almost everything (apart for his love for his beloved West Ham *cough*), but he had an ability to slide away from proper scrutiny, a ‘talent’ that has so far not been passed on.
This is all before we get onto Brexit, the hot potato that Cameron look delighted to pass on. And pass it on he did, but not before smearing this giant hot Brexit potato all over No. 10, leaving it smeared across the walls, down the back of the sofa and even managing to cram some into the toaster. Unlike Liam Byrne, he did not even bother leaving a note saying that everything was up a particularly unpleasant creek, never mind leaving any semblance of a clean up plan.
Fast forward six months and Theresa, ordering the ‘Brexit means Brexit’ starter, with a ‘not providing a running commentary’ appetiser, seemingly hasn’t quite decided on what sort of Brexit she fancies ordering off the menu as a main. ‘Soft’ or ‘hard’ Brexit was the early favourites but we’ve since been told we could have a colourful ‘Red, white and blue’ Brexit. I’m personally in favour of a ‘medium-rare’ Brexit, but others would have it that there are absolutely no foreign ingredients used and that strictly no one who is remotely qualified to cook up such a dish is allowed close to the kitchen. This makes things tricky. Who knows what the dessert is going to look like if/when we ever get that far.
Her strong lead in the polls seems to have been achieved more by accident than design. May is vulnerable, with indecision undermining all aspects of her Premiership so far, as well as finding out first hand, how difficult it can be to tame a party full to the brim of self-serving egomaniacs. With ‘Article 50 Day’ *must think of a snappier title* looming, she must get a grip, fast.
Surely then, this has opened the door for Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party, seeking to build some momentum (small ‘m’) before the local elections this summer?
Later today, Corbyn will be ‘relaunched’; although I’m praying for a Stars in Their Eyes, ‘tonight Matthew, I’m going to be…Ziggy Stardust’ moment, I am resigned to something a little more sedate. Nevertheless, despite the likely absence of magic doors and smoke, this does represent an opportunity for Corbyn to position himself as a credible alternative to May. NB – this paragraph was meant to contain a Chris de Burgh, ‘Lady in Red’ joke just to shoehorn in the worst Stars in Their Eyes moment in the history of the world. ‘WAIT, THERE ARE TWO OF THEM?!’. And you thought 2016 was the apocalypse.
In fact, the climate could hardly be more helpful. The NHS, Labour’s creation and greatest legacy, not to mention Corbyn’s natural political comfort zone, is buckling under the devastating pressures of severe under investment and crippling workloads placed on its heroic staff. May’s empty platitudes are ringing hollow, as the realities and outcomes of their ideology are being laid bare for all to see.
On Brexit too, there is a chance to make some amends for a lukewarm campaigning effort last summer. With six months of empty soundbites behind her, May has left a vacuum of leadership at one of the most crucial points in recent British history. This is a space that we simply must fill; the Liberal Democrats have successfully promoted the narrative that they are the party of the 48% and have seen electoral success as a result. In comparison, so far, we have been muddled at best and our numbers in the polls and at the ballot box tell their own story. We must develop a clear and coherent message.
In fairness, Corbyn’s ‘relaunch’ is in itself a concession of sorts, a realisation that the recent electoral results and [enter your own adjective here] polling numbers are impossible to ignore. He continues to add to a rapidly expanding Strategy and Communications team and there seems to be a little less reluctance to engage with the media. After the leadership election last summer, the PLP has, on the whole, got behind Jeremy’s leadership and Sir Keir Starmer has made an excellent start as Shadow Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union. It is also encouraging that the Party has unofficially been put on a General Election footing, with the advertising of Regional and National Organiser positions across the country.
It is now of crucial importance that Corbyn and his team builds on these small steps in the right direction. That we develop communicative policies with real substance behind them. That we maximise the campaigning potential of thousands of new, enthusiastic members. That we speak to and engage with not only those that agree with us, but also with those who don’t, especially those who have no fixed political allegiance.
We enter 2017 with British politics at a critical juncture. Theresa May plans to trigger Article 50 in just a couple of months time with little to no idea of what life outside the European Union will look like, how we achieve it and how long it will take. She presides over a Party which has driven the NHS to breaking point, with the Red Cross saying it is facing a ‘humanitarian crisis‘ and already, just six months into her Premiership, a reputation for indecisiveness is becoming fixed. Suddenly, a large post-election majority in 2020 does not have the same air of inevitability as it did last summer.
Meanwhile, Jeremy Corbyn is hoping that 2017 will be the year of renewal and, given the current political outlook, his optimism isn’t unfounded. If he can carve out Labour’s vision of a post-Brexit Britain and achieve electoral success in Copeland and in the local elections this May, then his road to 2020 becomes clearer.
We may still be two-and-a-half years from a General Election, but the decisions taken in the coming months by Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn will be of critical importance to their hopes of electoral victory. For May and Corbyn then, 2017 is the fork in the road to 2020.