A New Settlement for Post-Referendum Britain

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Whatever the outcome of the EU referendum, the future of UK politics looks more uncertain than at any time in living memory.

The Conservative Party is irreparably split. The bitterness of the campaign has been astonishing.  The fault lines in personal relationships across the party are deep and, I suspect, unbridgeable.

It is hard to see the Prime Minister staying in office for long. But although  we  have become used to  the notion  of  a Johnson/Osborne/May  fight  to be the next  occupant of No 10,  could any of this troika  reunite the Party?  I think not.  Eurosceptic Conservatives have much in common with   UKIP, and could command a healthy vote in any election – possibly around 25%.

But we have seen a resurgence  of  what  we used to call “One Nation” Toryism, – those such as  Sarah Woolaston and Baroness Warsi  who  have  publicly rejected  the  acerbic  traits  of  colleges.  The impressive performance of Ruth Davidson – both in the Scottish elections and the EU campaign could be the catalyst for a move back to the centre, which would itself have a strong electoral pull.

So we have the real prospect of  a  staunchly  right  wing  Conservative/UKIP  block,  and  a  reasserted  One Nation grouping.  But as we look to the left of the political spectrum we see challenges there too.

Jeremy Corbyn is firmly in control of the Party machinery. Labour’s share in recent elections is generally improving.  But the party’s message is struggling to be heard and its core vote is vulnerable, outside of the South East particularly, to UKIP.   The party’s collapse in Scotland and  redrawn  Westminster constituency  boundaries  make  it  much  harder  for the Party  to  win a majority.

In this scenario, for both a fractured Conservative party and a constrained Labour one, constitutional reform makes increasing sense. Would not a “leave”   result would create an unstoppable momentum for Scottish independence and may even loosen English-Welsh ties?  London will surely vote Remain, and is becoming ever more distinctive to other parts of the UK.  But the devolution  of  powers  away  from  central  government (the so-called “Devo Manc”  model)  has been enthusiastically  embraced –  not least by  Labour  who  see it as   an opportunity  to  address the  imbalance of political  forces  at  Westminster.

The level and spread of regional autonomy in the UK could soon cross the Rubicon. So the question  must be  how to  ensure that  the exercise of  devolved power  is  by directly  elected representatives who  reflect  the political views of the  population.  A new constitutional  settlement,  especially one  in which  old political  power blocs  have changed,  could make  proportional representation not only  desirable  but necessary.

The future is of course unwritten. The post-referendum landscape will inevitably be different, and we can’t leave it to others to shape it. The opportunity to shape a new constitutional settlement – that takes the heat from the referendum campaign and produces something effective, enduring and empowering – is one we must take.

This piece also appears in The Huffington Post


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