Past performance, as they say in financial services, is not an indicator of future outcomes. The same is true in politics.
There are some broad lessons one can draw from history: the British electorate tend to vote solely on domestic issues, for example, as Winston Churchill found out in 1945, and Tony Blair in 2005 – and possibly Theresa May this year. But there are times when one has to admit that looking at the past is no help at all; the present really is a different country.
Which is pretty much the case right now. We haven’t been anywhere like this in modern times.
You can see some parallels, of course. Maybe the late 1970s, when living standards fell, with prices rising faster than wages, and there was a loss of faith in the future. We also then had a government expressing doubts about the economic policies that had hitherto been orthodoxy.
That was James Callaghan, burying Keynesian principles at the 1976 Labour conference. ‘We used to think that you could spend your way out of recession and increase employment by cutting taxes and boosting government spending,’ he announced; ‘I tell you in all candour that that option no longer exists.’ He was then horrified when Margaret Thatcher demonstrated how far one could go down that road.
Perhaps there was an echo of that moment in Theresa May’s early speeches as prime minister, when she called for workers on boards of companies, and expressed doubts over an economic settlement that left large numbers of people just about managing to stay out of poverty. Like Callaghan, she doesn’t seem to be the person who’s going to follow those thoughts through to their logical conclusion, but someone else might.
May’s own position feels as hopeless as that of John Major after Black Wednesday in 1992, the leader of a government that appears inevitably doomed just a few months after a general election. Alternatively, there are those talking of her as re-living the leadership crisis of Iain Duncan Smith in 2002, with a similar defenestration required.
But these comparisons take us only so far. Unlike Smith, May is prime minister, and the Tories don’t have the luxury of opposition as they did in 2002. Nor is there a caretaker in the wings who can be crowned unopposed, as Michael Howard was then. (To some extent, May herself was supposed to occupy that role.) And the difference with the 1990s administration is that, despite some predictions, May is no Major: he was a good communicator who won the 1992 election against the odds, while she fails to connect and lost an election despite having the odds stacked in her favour.
There’s also the question of the oppositions faced by Major and May: where he faced a Labour Party led by the calming presence of John Smith, and then by the eminently electable Tony Blair – both figures to whom disaffected Tory voters could comfortably switch allegiance – the same is hardly true now.
Look at the front-bench that Smith headed 25 years ago: Gordon Brown as shadow chancellor, Jack Cunningham as shadow foreign secretary, Blair as shadow home secretary. Not the greatest team ever, but a reasonable mix of experience, plausibility and intelligence. Their equivalents today under Jeremy Corbyn? John McDonnell, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott. Not quite so impressive.
Regrettably, the same is true of the government. Currently occupying the real, rather than shadow jobs: Philip Hammond, Boris Johnson, Amber Rudd.
And that, in essence, is why there are no obvious lessons to be learnt from history. Even without the daunting challenge of Brexit, there would be hard times coming and we’re facing them with the least impressive set of politicians in living memory. The calibre – what Keith Joseph might call the human stock – of politics these days is pitifully low.
In these parlous conditions, it seems almost distasteful to consider the petty parochial positions of the various parties, but if pushed to make a judgement, I’d say that the conference season showed the Tories to be still in the better place.
The air of triumphalism at the Labour conference was profoundly misplaced. After seven years of government cuts and a sluggish economy, with only an appalling campaign by the Tories in front of them, Labour failed to win the general election in June. Since then, nothing’s gone right for the government, and yet the two parties are neck-and-neck in the polls (Labour should be a good 10-12 points ahead) and May is still outpolling Corbyn as the favoured choice for prime minister.
It’s a fine line between self-confidence and delusion, and the Labour Party is on the wrong side. The rhetoric is popular enough, but there’s a hell of a long way to go, and Corbyn and McDonnell are still a major handicap in the race. Despite the predictable excitement in some quarters, Labour’s front-bench look nothing like a government in waiting.
At the Conservatives’ conference, their evident misery at least made it look like they recognized the desperation of their position. Even if some of them – most notably Boris Johnson – went out of their way to make it worse.
May herself, however, did okay. Her big speech may have been bedevilled by problems, but my impression is that they didn’t undermine her position as much as the front pages might suggest. Where the complaint earlier this year was that she seemed remote to the point of being robotic, she now appears all too human. I think she has public sympathy, and that may serve her well.
This is not to deny that there are commentators saying the one thing no politician can survive is the pity of the public. Indeed, I used to argue the same in relation to Ed Miliband. But this really is a case where history is no guide.
When May became prime minister, the press – both here and abroad – talked of the Iron Lady Mark 2. That hasn’t worked out too well, and possibly it’s to May’s advantage. We’ve never had a female prime minister before who looked even vaguely vulnerable, and I don’t think that the requirements of being a strong, unshakeable leader will necessarily apply to a woman in the same way that they would to a man. Whatever polite platitudes we mouth, the country still judges male and female politicians by different values.
In fact, toughness may no longer be a key factor. Corbyn’s popularity among his supporters is based on precisely the opposite: the fact that he seems so genial. His unpopularity elsewhere, on the other hand, is the result of him seeming dictatorial and divisive. Right now, stability is more important than strength. And even if strength were important, there’s precious little of it on offer.
Lord knows May has thus far proved to be a very poor prime minister, possibly the worst of my lifetime, but such is the state of politics that – despite everything – she’s still the Conservative Party’s best option. And if the Tories can hold their nerve and button their lip, my money would be on them to see off the challenge of Corbynism. But I’m far from convinced that they’re good enough politicians to do it.