In closing the scheme brought about by the Dubs amendment, Theresa May has confirmed that the ‘nasty party’ is well and truly back, argues Grace Skelton
After her Lancaster House speech setting out the government’s aims for the Brexit negotiations, we expected that Theresa May was going to push for a hard Brexit and she appears to be sticking to her word. The government successfully defeated every single amendment to the article 50 bill this week, including those which sought to guarantee National Health Service funding and a meaningful vote for parliament, as well as to secure the rights of European Union citizens already living here. Since then, there has already been some not so subtle briefing that the House of Lords must toe the line or risk abolishment.
The Tories did not stop there. With parliament firmly focussed on article 50 the government tried to bury bad news in a very long written statement revealing that they were to close the scheme brought about by the Dubs amendment which has so far resettled 200 unaccompanied refugee children out of a target of 3000.
None of these government decisions were necessary. None of them were in the Conservative party manifesto. None of them were emblazoned on the side of the Vote Leave bus. These were government decisions that May did not have to take, but she took them anyway. If this week is a sign of things to come then the message from May is clear, the nasty party is back.
Given her previous warnings about the reputation of the Conservative party, this could come as something of a surprise. At Conservative party conference in 2002 she told her party faithful, ‘you know what some people call us: the nasty party,’ urging her members to adapt to the new political landscape shaped by New Labour so that they could become electable again. So what has changed in the last 15 years?
Brexit is certainly a factor. While it is too simplistic to blame May’s leadership style entirely on the referendum, there is no doubt that the result has emboldened those Tory backbenchers from the more frightening wing of the party. Having observed how they were able to score points against David Cameron, which is why we had the referendum in the first place, it is clear that May is trying to keep them happy.
These backbenchers have every reason to be confident having just pulled off one of the biggest coups in recent British political history. However, given the divisions in the Labour party and the Scottish National party’s blinding obsession with seeing everything through the lens of Scottish independence, there is no need for the prime minister to pursue the kind of Brexit vision you would expect to find in the darkest corner of a Tory rightwingers fantasy. Labour is going to have to fight tooth and nail to stop that fantasy being realised.
Even before Brexit we knew that if May succeeded Cameron, it would signal a shift from his more socially liberal premiership. Although she had served as a loyal home secretary for six years there were signs that she would take a more hardline stance on some issues if she could. It was no secret that May took the immigration figures seriously, even if she did not achieve her target. Leaked Home Office documents have shown that she even wanted to target the children of illegal immigrants looking for school places, and who can forget the infamous ‘go home’ vans?
There is plenty to attack the Tories on, yet the task for Labour remains extremely difficult. The Brexit vote has shaken our party more than losing the general election did. This time the divides are not over whether we should go left or right to win back the voters, we are asking questions about the very purpose of the party. What does it mean to be Labour in the post-Brexit political landscape? How can we level between the metropolitan liberal core vote and the working class towns core vote?
There are no easy answers but unfortunately we do not have the luxury of time. The nasty party is back and unless the Labour party kicks into gear it is going to be here for a long time yet.
Grace Skelton is former national secretary of Labour Students. She tweets at @graceskelton
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