February 24, 2017

After the by-elections

It's a funny old political world. Of course the two by-elections didn't change views of Jeremy Corbyn. Yet he remains a puzzle. How can someone who has been an MP for so many years be so ineffectual, bumbling and useless?

Okay he was never remotely able enough for even the most junior ministerial office, but as a full-time backbencher he was in a position to watch the most effective political operators of his day, and learn from them. But he seems to have learned precisely nothing. A Labour MP who left his front bench (and there are plenty of them) claimed Corbyn is vain. That is to overrate him. He's just thick. Even thicker than Harriet Harman. That's quite something.

Ann Widdecombe spent last night on This Week exhorting Theresa May to be radical in tackling big domestic issues, and not get caught up in Brexit and neglect them, though her radicalism seemed to consist of a call for some grand conversation about the NHS leading to an agreed solution for its problems. Disappointingly vacuous. Michael Portillo suggested that the only Conservative who could drive a genuine reform agenda was Michael Gove, which certainly seems right.

The only way towards a broad reform agenda would be to appoint Mr Gove as Deputy Prime Minister with an oversight of domestic issues. But Mrs May and her staff of control freaks probably couldn't live with that.

In any case, why should Gray May take the risk? Fiddling ineffectually - her style, as she showed at the Home Office - has brought her a 16 point lead over Labour. Politically, then, why would she implement bold policies aimed at actually tackling problems? Governing boldly is beyond her, but her timidity and lack of imagination are working for her politically.

And so to UKIP. Nuttall had an awful campaign, and has rightly been described on Twitter as "soiled goods". He has rightly been jeered at. He should not stand again in any constituency any time soon.

UKIP's problem is that politically Mrs May has shot their Brexit fox. Leave voters aren't going to vote UKIP out of a sense of gratitude.

UKIP will have to earn votes. That will come through good local people with strong local knowledge advocating a well known set of national policies. Ben Kelly argues that UKIP will fade away into irrelevance, and he may be right.

Given the mess that Corbyn is creating in Labour, time seems to be on UKIP's side. They need to create a set of clear, substantial policies which they can repeat over and over again, at national and at local level. Their candidates need to be not some underpowered carpetbagger, but people with strong local knowledge.

Again and again Stoke voters asked what Nuttall would do for Stoke, and indeed what he knew of Stoke. The answer was not very much.

In itself the Stoke seat is no great loss. Boundary changes are due to reduce the three Stoke seats to two, so the winner may have little political future.

Behind the scenes, maybe the thinkers in UKIP will see the Stoke result as a blessing, since it has shown everyone how useless Nuttall is as a candidate at an early stage. His role now must be to encourage his central policymakers, and nurture any promising local candidates he can find. This collegiate approach is something he should be good at, certainly better than his egomaniac predecessor, who never saw any limelight he didn't want all to himself.

We need an effective Opposition. Can Labour turn itself round? Maybe by splitting - it has some able politicians on its backbenches, even if some of them are sanctimonious moralists. Or will Labour's disintegration continue? If so, can UKIP mend its ways and start to become a wee bit professional? Unlike Ben Kelly, I wouldn't rule it out. But I certainly wouldn't bet on it.

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