In December 2019, The Economist magazine declared that the British Conservative party’s triumph in the general election under Boris Johnson meant the Tories were “the world’s most successful” political party. The Conservatives, they said, were in the business of winning elections in the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries.
Well, true. Sort of. What they did not say was that under the UK’s antiquated “first past the post” system, what Mr Johnson called his “stonking” success in 2019 was based on a minority of the votes, just 43.6 per cent.
More significantly, Britain’s Conservatives and their American counterparts, the Republican Party, subsequently seem to be having a simultaneous nervous breakdown. After their long history of success and great political figures – from Abraham Lincoln to Ronald Reagan, from Benjamin Disraeli to Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher – both parties seem in competition to decide which is more divided.
And it could get worse.
As everyone knows, the Republicans, post-Donald Trump, or at least post-Trump’s first presidency, are riven by factions and feuding. Amid great drama that played out for weeks, the world’s most powerful democracy has finally elected a Speaker of the House of Representatives.
Constitutionally, if something unthinkable were to happen both to the president and vice president, it is the speaker who would enter the White House. But Republicans dislike each other so much that it took them almost a month to agree on who should succeed Kevin McCarthy.
On the other side of the Atlantic, the Conservative party, if not actually in meltdown, is giving a good impersonation of a party that hasn’t a clue what to do. Their internal feuding is obvious. The Labour party is the opposition, but all the real Tory enemies seem to be on their own side.
I had hoped that Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who on Wednesday completed one year at 10 Downing Street, might be boring but would at least bring order to the factions in his party and prove competent. He has been unable to do so because the various enormous egos in his government are jockeying to succeed him when – not “if” – he loses the 2024 general election.
Privately, many Conservatives have written him off. They have spectacularly lost two by-elections in what were formerly safe seats. Pollsters are struggling to find historical parallels.
The results mean that every one of the Conservatives elected in the “stonking” success of December 2019 is now wondering whether they can possibly retain their seat at the next election, which some think most likely in October 2024. Others, including the Labour party, are preparing for the fight to be earlier, in May next year, in the hope of rapidly putting Britain out of the Conservative party’s misery.
But here’s the bigger point, which is beginning to concern some thinking politicians, although they don’t speak of it openly. International turmoil. From Ukraine to Palestine and Israel (and elsewhere), the world is obviously in a dangerous state.
Strange alliances among potentially threatening states concern security experts and western intelligence agencies. A recent meeting organised by the FBI in Palo Alto, California, brought together the heads of the domestic intelligence agencies of the “Five Eyes” nations – Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK and the US.
Britain’s Director General of MI5, Ken McCallum, spoke of what he called the “epic scale” of espionage directed towards commercial and technological secrets. “If you’re working at the cutting edge of technology, then geopolitics is interested in you even if you are not interested in geopolitics,” he said in a BBC interview.
Mr McCallum’s views about espionage and other matters were echoed by FBI Director Christopher A Wray, who spoke of his agency at one point opening a new investigation every 12 hours.
What brings the political situation and the intelligence assessments together is the concern in some circles that, as we enter 2024, politicians in both Britain and the US will be preoccupied with political infighting at more or less the same time – October and November of next year. Within a few weeks of each other, there may be hugely disruptive elections in both countries, which could see the return of Mr Trump to the White House (or the possibility of disruption were the former president to end up in jail).
Either outcome would be politically unsettling, and it could come at the same time as a new prime minister with no direct experience of running the UK – most likely Labour party leader, Keir Starmer – finds himself in Downing Street.
This would be the first time since 1992 that elections have been held more or less simultaneously on both sides of the Atlantic.
John Healey, Labour’s Shadow Defence Secretary, has already called for a joint task force with the US to prevent what he called “foreign interference” by unspecified states in both elections. “Our countries should be on high alert,” he said proposing a “democratic resilience centre” to “protect our democratic values, political institutions, elections and open societies”.
At the moment, such rumblings remain in the background, but intelligence agencies exist to prepare for the worst.
Everything in 2024 may go smoothly. But with Conservatives and Republicans fighting not just their opponents but also their colleagues, politics and geopolitics could get very rough indeed.