Theresa the dominant

AT AROUND 3am on February 24th Theresa May was woken by a text message that excited her so much she roused her husband. The Conservatives had just won Copeland, a Cumbrian constituency held by Labour since 1935. This is the first by-election since 1982 when the ruling party has taken a seat from the opposition. Hours later the prime minister flew up to address delighted Copeland campaigners, hailing the “astounding result” as proof that her party stood for “everyone across the whole country”. The Tories are polling above 40%, and the latest ICM survey gives them a near-record 18-point lead over Labour. Not since Tony Blair at his peak has a prime minister seemed so dominant.

Mrs May is partly the creator of her own pre-eminence. Moving her party left on economic issues (with talk, albeit barely substantiated, of a new industrial strategy) and right on social ones (making immigration cuts the overriding priority of her Brexit plans) has helped her to eat into Labour territory in places like Copeland and closed off political space to the right once colonised by the populist UK Independence Party (UKIP). But on both fronts, she is also lucky.

Jeremy Corbyn’s far-left Labour revolution was always going to boost the Tories. It is now eating itself. Lefties who once supported the Labour leader are abandoning him. Simon Fletcher, architect of his leadership victory in 2015, has resigned. After Copeland, the boss of Unison, a supportive union, insisted that Mr Corbyn “must take responsibility”. The beginning of the end of the Corbyn era seems nigh. He wants to enact reforms lowering the number of nominations by (anti-Corbyn) MPs that are needed for prospective leaders to go before the (pro-Corbyn) membership; once that is done he will come under new pressure from left-wing allies to make way, perhaps for Rebecca Long-Bailey, the shadow business secretary. But the process could still take some years.

UKIP might just have swept into the vacuum created by Labour to put Mrs May under pressure. But it is being obligingly useless. For the Stoke Central by-election on the same day as Copeland, the party boasted of its chances in “the capital of Brexit”. It even chose its new leader, Paul Nuttall, as candidate. But he ran a chaotic campaign marred by false claims on his website and eventually lost to Labour. For good measure UKIP has spent the aftermath tearing itself apart. Nigel Farage, its former leader, openly criticised Mr Nuttall. Then he and Arron Banks, a big donor, said that UKIP’s only MP, Douglas Carswell, should be sacked, seemingly to punish him for failing to secure a knighthood for Mr Farage himself.

An absence of effective opponents is bad for a ruling party, because it makes mistakes more likely. Four forces now constitute the real opposition in England: the pound, Europhile Tories, the House of Lords and the Liberal Democrats. Mrs May’s espousal of a “hard” Brexit has sent the currency tumbling, hurting living standards. Pro-European forces in her party are becoming louder: this week Sir John Major, a former prime minister, criticised ministers for being overly optimistic about Brexit and called for “a little more charm, and a lot less cheap rhetoric”. On March 1st the Lords amended the bill authorising Mrs May to begin Brexit talks, demanding that EU nationals’ rights in Britain be guaranteed. And some Tories fret that the Lib Dems could cost the party support in EU-friendly parts of the country.

Yet none of these is truly formidable. The pound’s fall cannot easily be politicised. Europhile Tories are a small minority within the party. Peers have made clear that they will not seek to stop Mrs May from triggering the Brexit process. And the Lib Dems have just nine MPs.

North of the border, however, is another matter. There the dominance of Nicola Sturgeon, first minister and leader of the Scottish National Party, matches Mrs May’s to the south. The Scottish Labour Party, previously firmly entrenched in power, held a shambolic conference on February 24th-26th, at which Mr Corbyn failed to endorse its leader’s proposal for a federal Britain and Sadiq Khan, the Labour mayor of London, caused a storm by appearing to call the nationalists bigoted. “It was a car crash,” chuckles a senior SNP official.

A crucial battleground in British politics over the coming years will be the clash between Mrs May and Ms Sturgeon. Noting that Scotland voted strongly to stay in the EU, Ms Sturgeon said this week that a second independence referendum would be a “legitimate, almost necessary” step if Scotland is dragged into a “hard Brexit”. She may announce a new plebiscite within weeks, in the hope that Scotland might be able to leave Britain before Britain leaves the EU. Mrs May seems to be taking the possibility seriously. Recently she told her cabinet to prepare to make the case for the union once again.