The Bear’s Lair: Reorganizing British politics

Britain’s Euro-elections on May 23 resulted in the 6-week-old Brexit Party getting 32% of the British vote and 29 MEPs, becoming the (equal) largest single MEP bloc in the European Parliament. With Theresa May’s resignation the following day, it opened a clear route for a full exit from the European Union and a new and better British politics. To get there and avoid falling into the numerous traps the left and the media will set, Brexiters need to understand how the British electoral system works and examine the precedents of 1886 and 1918.

Begin with a short examination of Theresa May’s record. She had a very difficult task, but by appointing officials in Olly Robbins and his staff who were attempting to thwart that task, she made it impossible. The deal Robbins and the EU negotiators came up with was impossibly booby-trapped and failed to fulfil the mandate May was given by the electorate in 2016. We now learn that a Canada-style free trade deal was available all along from European Council President Donald Tusk, but May’s minions failed to go for it. (It’s possible Tusk’s colleagues would have booby-trapped this deal also with some Irish nonsense, of course.) She is probably not Britain’s worst-ever Prime Minister – there is so much competition for that position – but she was certainly a bad one.

David Cameron, by resigning in a temper-tantrum when the electorate dared to vote the way he didn’t want, and Michael Gove and Boris Johnson, for making an asinine spectacle of themselves in the resulting leadership election, should all bear considerable blame for inflicting three years of the inept leftist authoritarian May on the British people – and wasting three years of the country’s history.

Turning now to the future, last week’s election result suggests there is still a majority in Britain for Brexit, but not a majority that couldn’t be stolen by Remainers in the administration and the media if there were a second referendum. If therefore a re-negotiation of the exit agreement is impossible (which at this stage I believe to be almost certain) and a “clean exit” is necessary, an election rather than a referendum would be a better way to validate it. With 650 constituencies and paper ballots, British General Elections are almost impossible to steal; a referendum, dependent on a single centralized outcome, has no such protections.

The existence of the Brexit party complicates General Election calculations. If the Brexit party fights a General Election separately from the Conservative party, it will take a huge bite out of the Conservative vote, losing it probably 100 seats, mostly to the Remain-supporting Liberal Democrats and Labour. This is the disadvantage of Britain’s otherwise admirable first-past-the-post constituency electoral system; if the vote is heavily split, it throws seats to the other side. (Proportional Representation systems have other much worse disadvantages; they generally prevent the electorate from changing anything at all, leaving decisions to be made by negotiations between politicians –as in Germany, where protests against the loathsome ex-apparatchik Mrs. Merkel and her perpetual CDU/CSU/SPD coalitions are utterly futile.)

The Conservative Party has however come up against this situation twice before in its history, in 1886 and 1918, and on both occasions it was able to form what was essentially a Conservative majority government, by two different mechanisms.

In 1886, after the General Election of that year, the Conservatives had 303 of 670 seats, short of a majority. However, there were also 90 Liberal Unionists, who had broken with Gladstone’s Liberals over the issue of Irish Home Rule. These fell into three groups. 13 were Northern Irish Protestants, the ancestors of today’s DUP; they were reliable allies for a Conservative party opposed to Home Rule, at least for Ulster. The other 77 were ex-mainstream Liberals, divided into two very different groups of about equal size. One group was ex-Whigs, led by the Marquess of Hartington (heir to the Duke of Devonshire) – centrist, mostly aristocratic members, mostly for ancestral rural constituencies, who had been growing increasingly unhappy with Gladstone’s drift to the left, and included several of his former Cabinet members. The other group was centered on Joseph Chamberlain and his Birmingham political machine; they were far more Radical, but intensely patriotic and opposed to Irish Home Rule.

In this situation, the Northern Irish and the ex-Whigs could be expected to find a long-term home in the Conservative party, but the long-term home for Chamberlain’s followers was less clear. In 1886, a simple electoral pact was sufficient, with the two parties agreeing not to run candidates in each other’s seats. This pact over time was made permanent, although the formal formation of the Conservative and Unionist party, with merged party funds, did not happen until 1912.

In 1918, the situation was different. The Liberal party had split into supporters and opponents of the Coalition in government under the Liberal David Lloyd George. It was however clear that the Coalition would not last indefinitely. Hence Lloyd George and the Conservative leadership issued “coupons” valid only for the 1918 election; any candidate with a coupon would be the only Coalition candidate in that constituency. Only around 150 coupons were issued to coalition-supporting Liberals, (mostly already MPs for Liberal seats) while Conservatives received enough coupons to form a majority on their own if all their candidates won – there were many Conservatives who ran with coupons against Liberals who opposed the Coalition. The result was a massive Coalition majority, but before the next election in 1922 the Coalition broke up, to be followed by a Conservative majority government.

Both these tactics worked well therefore, in their different circumstances. To secure Brexit, assuming an election must be held (which is very likely, and preferable to another referendum, as explained above) one or other should be used between the Conservative and Brexit parties, but which?

One possibility would be to form a Conservative and Brexit Party, as in 1912, with a motto of “Church, King and Brexit.” (yes, I know Britain has had a Queen since 1952, but to keep up with the times, avoid misgendering transgendered monarchs and close the regal-wage gap, the new party will use “King” throughout.) The new party would then have the benefit of the existing Conservative constituency associations, to which Brexit party members could be added. However, the pernicious Conservative Campaign Headquarters control over parliamentary candidates must be abolished; the candidates would be selected by the new enlarged constituency associations.

Seats would generally be allocated by the new party according to the relative strengths within each constituency party. Candidates fully committed to Brexit would replace Remainer Conservatives and ex-Conservatives such as Anna Soubry and Amber Rudd, as well as picking off the quisling Speaker John Bercow’s safe Conservative seat. In London, the Conservative party would remain dominant in the few winnable seats, since Brexit strength is weak. Much more important, in the industrial North of England, Brexit party members would generally be chosen to fight the seat. For example, at the European elections, the Brexit party got 39.6% of the vote and a clear win over Labour in Sunderland, a city in which the Conservatives have done pathetically badly since 1959.

The Conservative and Brexit Party would then become a permanent feature of the political landscape, with Nigel Farage and other Brexit leaders getting safe seats and being eligible for Cabinet membership in a Conservative and Brexit government. Farage, whose achievement with the Brexit Party far outshines the track record of any of the candidates aiming to lead the Conservatives, would make an excellent Home Secretary, for example. Such an appointment would finally convince civil libertarians and social conservatives that the follies, disgrace, authoritarianism and political correctness of Teresa May and Amber Rudd’s periods in that office were gone forever.

If Farage could not be convinced to merge the two parties permanently, a coupon system would also be possible. Here a number of safe Conservative seats would need to be allocated to the Brexit Party, as they currently have no MPs, but by encouraging local constituency parties to de-select Remainers and select Brexit party leaders, this could be achieved. Again, however, there is an entire universe of seats in the industrial North and Midlands where Conservatives have little chance, but where a Brexit candidate without Conservative opposition could win. In this case, the Brexit party would remain an independent organization, able to fold, merge with the Conservatives or expand in time for the next election, presumably in 2024 when Brexit will be in the rearview mirror. Provided the Conservatives were reasonably generous, this could give the Brexit party considerably more MPs than they could expect on their own, and the right to join a Coalition government if as is likely one was formed.

It is essential that Brexit take place on or before October 31. Given the recalcitrance of the EU negotiators and the Remainer majority in the current Parliament, a merger or coupon arrangement between the Conservatives and the Brexit Party is the only way to achieve this reliably. The next Conservative leader should take immediate steps to organize such an arrangement, which is likely to result in a large Conservative/Brexit majority, since Remainers will be split between Labour, Liberal Democrats and Greens, a fatal weakness under the British electoral system.

(The Bear’s Lair is a weekly column that is intended to appear each Monday, an appropriately gloomy day of the week. Its rationale is that the proportion of “sell” recommendations put out by Wall Street houses remains far below that of “buy” recommendations. Accordingly, investors have an excess of positive information and very little negative information. The column thus takes the ursine view of life and the market, in the hope that it may be usefully different from what investors see elsewhere.)