Analysis | The UK’s Political Fever Dreams May Finally Be Over


A fever has raged through UK politics for seven debilitating years since the Brexit vote. During this time, every radical, wrong-headed cure for the country’s ills has been tried and found wanting. Last week saw three major political developments that indicate the fever may finally have burnt itself out.

The abrupt resignation of the Scottish National Party leader, Nicola Sturgeon was one sign. Another was the Labour Party’s decision to ostracize its hardline socialist former leader, Jeremy Corbyn. The third positive development saw pro and anti-Europeans break bread at a conference last weekend on normalizing relations with the European Union — a harbinger perhaps of more constructive politics at Westminster and some mitigation of the strife between reasonable Brexiteers and Remainers.

Sturgeon, a formidable political operator but hopeless administrator of Scotland’s devolved government, has aimed to break up the Union — a pact that has underpinned both the security and prosperity of both her country and England for three hundred years. She’d been heading down a blind alley at full throttle with a couple of huge speed bumps: Her uncompromising legislation on gender recognition proved unpopular with Scottish voters; and a police investigation into her husband’s opaque dealings with the party’s finances was looking ugly. 

Sturgeon had been denied a second referendum on independence by Westminster but then opted on a strategy that could have taken the UK into dangerous territory. She had proposed that the next general election be treated as a de facto vote on independence. If nationalist parties won more than 50% in Scotland then, in her eyes, the people would have spoken for the dissolution of the Union. Whatever one thinks of the case for Scottish independence — and alert readers will have gleaned that I am against it — this forcing of the issue was one of those abnormalities which have become too commonplace in the UK’s over-heated politics.

Now the reckoning has arrived and a poor domestic record has caught up with her. It does not end the arguments about how to govern Scotland but it does conclude a period when overzealous leaders tried to force their hand. My guess is that her successor will proceed rather less fiercely. The departures of Boris Johnson and Liz Truss, both loathed by the Scots, and their replacement by the unprovocative technocrat Rishi Sunak additionally deprives the SNP of two English hate figures around which the movement could rally.  

In fairness to Scotland, England has had its own fever dream too and the two are intertwined. Brexit had initially turbocharged Scottish support for independence. Ultimately, however, Brexit makes that dream much less viable because Scotland would be cut loose from its biggest trading partner — echoing the UK’s estrangement from continental Europe.

The ill wind in the SNP blows the pro-unionist Labour Party some good. Second placed in the polls north of the border (and enjoying a 20 point lead over the Tories in the UK overall), the official opposition needs to recover seats in its historic Scottish heartlands in order to guarantee an outright majority in the next general election. 

There was good news for Labour on another front too. The Equality and Human Rights Commission, which found the party under Corbyn guilty of failing to combat rampant anti-semitism among his hard left base, finally gave Labour the all-clear. Drawing a line under this shameful episode, its new leader Keir Starmer let it be known that Corbyn will not be allowed to stand for Labour at the next election: “The changes we have made are permanent, fundamental, irrevocable.”

Starmer is adamant that the party today “is unrecognizable from 2019.” That’s something to  celebrate. Corbyn’s unreconstructed support for unilateral nuclear disarmament, his perpetual tilt towards Moscow and other enemies of the West and old-socialist domestic programs represented a radical departure from the national consensus. Imagine what damage he could have done to NATO had he been in Downing Street when Vladimir Putin’s tanks rolled into Ukraine.

Nowadays, Labour under Starmer gives full-throated backing to Ukraine. His shadow chancellor, Rachel Reeves  has ruled out ambitious public spending programs funded by the magic money tree. She saw the markets turn on the Tories when Truss proposed unfunded tax cuts.

How goes the normality barometer for the party in power? Sunak’s administration lacks political depth and his economic policies are too rigidly orthodox for those who prefer more Keynesian prescriptions. Yet the new prime minister doesn’t bend and break the rules, nor does he routinely trash the civil service. The administrative chaos that resulted in Johnson’s Partygate is over.  And unlike Truss who — in her dash for growth — ran roughshod over the Office Budgetary Responsibility watchdog, the Treasury and the Bank of England, Sunak  pays proper respect to the great financial institutions.

Previous prime ministers have been embroiled in confrontations with Brussels ever since the 2016 Brexit referendum. Often the EU has been as much, if not more at fault. But an epoch of war in eastern Europe is a good time to resolve differences — and also propitious in taking the edge off the damage to trade caused by leaving the single market.

Last weekend leading Brexiteers sat down with Remainers at Ditchley Park to find common ground in resetting relations with the continental bloc. Brexit-supporting newspapers cried “treason” and pro-European outlets gloated that it was game, set and match to the EU. But the majority of voters are tired of the name calling. A deal to smooth commerce and diplomatic relations looks more promising than at any other time.

That is why, out of the limelight, the government has quietly negotiated an agreement with the EU over the Northern Ireland Protocol. Goods from mainland Britain to the North will no longer be checked automatically as if there was a border down the Irish Sea. A trusted trader scheme could be introduced instead. Knots and wrinkles remain, but the days when any progress seemed impossible are over.

UK politics will remain fraught: Divides will still be wide on issues from the economy to culture wars. But at least the heat may be cooling by a couple of degrees, enough to bring the arts of compromise and gradualism back to the table. The UK may finally come out from under the so-called Chinese curse. Living in less interesting times once more will give everyone a break.

More From Bloomberg Opinion:

Liz Truss Might Have the Last Laugh Yet: Martin Ivens

First Brexit, Then Bregrets. Time for Breconciliation?: Lionel Laurent

• Nicola Sturgeon Was the Tories’ Best Foil. Now She’s Gone: Therese Raphael

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Martin Ivens is the editor of the Times Literary Supplement. Previously, he was editor of the Sunday Times of London and its chief political commentator.

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