I wonder what will the history books will say. Was it an earthquake, a shifting of the tectonic plates after which the British political landscape never looked the same again? Or a mere spasm, a violent shudder after which the waters soon calmed, the winds abated, and life carried on much as before?
We won’t know the results of these most bizarre European parliament elections until Sunday night/Monday morning – but I think we can say with a fair degree of confidence that they were not the Conservative party’s finest hour.
Nor, I suspect, will Jeremy Corbyn have much to celebrate. So if the two political parties which between them have dominated UK politics for the best part of a century have both done appallingly, what does that tell us?
Perhaps it tells us that they have outlived their usefulness. Both were broad coalitions: the Tories included landed gentry, old-fashioned English nationalists, industrialists, businesspeople, and aspiring, skilled blue-collar workers. Labour embraced organised trades unionism, Socialists, public sector workers, and middle-class, university-educated urbanites.
Those coalitions, which have been steadily pulling away from each other, largely but not only as a result of the tensions created by the Brexit debate, now look increasingly precarious. It is possible, therefore, that the two-party system is, to coin a phrase, no longer fit for purpose.
So let’s sit down with a blank sheet of paper and create an entirely new party system. (We can leave reform of our Westminster voting system out of this discussion for now, although if you want to be reminded of my view, here’s a link to a piece I wrote four years ago, just before the 2015 general election.)
It’s not too difficult to imagine a four-party system which would more accurately reflect the main political currents in contemporary Britain. (The SNP, Plaid Cymru and the parties of northern Ireland do not form part of this discussion, so perhaps more accurately I should refer to ‘contemporary England.’)
First, the English Nationalists. Leader, obviously: Nigel Farage. Their support comes from the white working class; older white voters, most of them men; some of the post-industrial cities of northern England and the Midlands – and Jacob Rees-Mogg.
Second, the Conservative Democrats. Leader: Hmm. Amber Rudd? Rory Stewart? Heidi Allen? Supporters include one-nation Tories, a section of the professional classes (doctors, lawyers, teachers) and middle-class voters who believe in what used to be called (by David Cameron, among others) ‘compassionate Conservatism.’
Third, the Social Democrats. Leader: Yvette Cooper? Keir Starmer? Chuka Umunna? (He wishes …) Supporters include non-Corbynite Labour supporters from the professions, young urbanites and a smattering of Liberal Democrats.
Fourth, the Socialists. Leader: John McDonnell. Loyal to their Marxist roots, they are determined to reform or replace capitalism with what they call a fairer economic system. Supporters come from Momentum, young voters and some trades unionists.
It’s unlikely that any of them would win enough votes in a general election to form a majority government on their own, so coalitions will be the order of the day.
Depending on the parliamentary arithmetic, it could be an English Nationalist-Conservative Democrat coalition. Not too different, perhaps, from what we’ll see emerging over the coming months.
Or it could be a Conservative Democrat-Social Democrat coalition, a bit like the Cameron-Clegg coalition between 2010 and 2015. (Which was, as you may remember, a great deal more stable than what followed.)
Or a Social Democrat-Socialist coalition, not unlike the Blair-Brown years, but with fewer temper tantrums.
It is possible – not likely, but possible – that we are observing the beginning of the end of the Conservative party as we know it. There is no law of politics that says parties have to last for ever (did anyone vote Whig yesterday?) – just look at France, Spain or Italy – and it could well be that David Cameron’s absent-minded triggering of the Brexit nightmare dealt a fatal blow not only to his own career but also to his party.
Or perhaps Boris Johnson really will save it from oblivion. He could cosy up to Nigel Farage and sweep up all the Brexit party’s votes in a general election, just as Margaret Thatcher swept up National Front votes in 1979 by expressing sympathy for voters ‘who rather fear being swamped by people with a different culture.’ (Remember, in the 2014 European elections, UKIP won 27.5% of the vote and twenty-three MEPs. A year later, they won just 3.9% of the vote in the general election, and just one MP.)
I’ve just realised: I haven’t once mentioned Theresa May. Already forgotten. Like Neville Chamberlain, she was the wrong prime minister at the wrong time, inadequate and incapable of leading her country through a grave national crisis.