Two years after exiting, Britain is already beginning to re-think its relationship with the Europe Union. As we approach the second anniversary of the UK’s exit from the European bloc, a growing chorus of criticism is being aimed at the particularly damaging version of Brexit chosen by Theresa May and Boris Johnson, and negotiated by Lord Frost. We need to learn from the last two years. To this end, Yorkshire Bylines has decided to offer our help by publishing a series of linked articles: the lessons of Brexit.
The Conservative Party
The Conservative Party is in an almighty mess. To take just the latest example, when did a sitting prime minister last order an ethics probe into the financial dealings of a former chancellor over millions in unpaid tax? As the party heads towards the exit door, exhausted and out of ideas, the scandals are beginning to coming thicker and faster.
The biggest scandal of all however, which hangs over the others like a black cloud, is Brexit. An anonymous Conservative MP in 2017 gave a portent of things to come when he or she was quoted saying:
“This country is f****d. We are tethered to the mast of Brexit and when it goes wrong we’re screwed. They all know it. All Labour have to do is hedge their bets. When the public realise they have been sold a pup they will turn on the party.”
It is indeed all going ‘wrong’. Just how wrong you can tell by reading Boris Johnson’s favourite newspaper, the Daily Telegraph where articles now regularly appear claiming that Brexit is “unsalvageable” or that “project fear was right all along”. They are well behind the curve. Polling for some time shows that a majority think leaving the EU was an historic mistake.
The Labour Party did hedge its bets. Some may even think Sir Keir Starmer has gone too far the other way. The result, exactly as forecast, is an electorate turning on the Conservative Party. A poll by Savanta in December forecast the Conservatives would be annihilated if an election had been held then, winning just 69 seats, down by a whopping 296.
The millennials problem
The Tories have a big problem among millennials and post-millennials (essentially, people born after 1981 – Blair’s generation). They tend to be better educated, often university graduates, cosmopolitan and totally unfamiliar with the world of barriers and borders created by Brexit.
If Conservative support among voters in general is terrible, among these groups it’s virtually non-existent. A recent poll, suggests just 2% of people aged 18 to 24, and 15% of those between 25 and 49 intend to vote Conservative at the next general election. Only in the over 65s do the Tories enjoy a majority.
The party is being pulled apart
Last month in the FT, Robert Shrimsley wrote a piece entitled ‘The Tories risk being consumed by Faragism‘. In it, he suggested that for 25 years the party has been “terrorised” from the right by “populists without and hardliners within”, whose appetite for red meat could never be satisfied.
At the moment, the Reform Party has taken over the Faragist mantle, threatening to run candidates in every constituency at the next election. Meanwhile, the Conservatives are riven by factions. There are so many ‘research’, ‘recovery’ and ‘scrutiny’ groups inside the party, led by hardliners, that it’s hard to keep track of them all.
The latest is the Conservative Democratic Group, manoeuvring to oust Sunak and restore King Boris to his rightful place, as they see it.
Principles “incompatible with EU membership”
The right-wing Bruges Group (honorary president one M. Thatcher) claims that being a “free, sovereign, self-governing nation” is incompatible with EU membership. Others suggest that it’s even incompatible with “British Conservatism”.
This presents a dilemma for the Conservative Party.
In a recent blog post Professor Sir John Curtice, Britain’s leading pollster, points out that voters would now prefer to rejoin the EU. Asked how they would vote in a future referendum, an average of the last six polls up to 22 December shows 57% of voters in favour of rejoining, a ten-point swing since the first poll a year ago.
One doesn’t need to ask why. Wherever you look in Britain three years after leaving the EU, you see a country on its uppers, shuffling along in old, shabby clothes and worn out shoes trying to keep up the pretence that good times are just around the corner. We look desperately short of the £40bn of government spending power being lost each year due to Brexit.
If a choice is ever put to the voters between British Conservatism and EU membership, the party may not like the answer.
A future schism is coming
Knives are already being sharpened. Two distinct factions are starting to emerge, best illustrated by a recent exchange in the media.
Conservative peer Lord Finkelstein, writing in The Times, said the idea that Brexit would “make us more prosperous was indeed monumentally foolish”. Once a journalist and member of the SDP, Finkelstein thinks that while Brexit wasn’t entirely stupid, it was a serious mistake because it “promised only abstract advantages” against an economic loss that would be “concrete”.
Unsurprisingly, his colleague Lord Frost didn’t agree. On Twitter, Britain’s chief Brexit negotiator bridled at the very idea that democracy and self-government were merely abstract advantages, claiming it was “better to have a 100% say in governing your own country than a 13% share in governing everyone else’s”.
A political commentator pointed out that if “democracy and self-government” are always advantageous then Yorkshire should sue for independence, followed by Leeds seceding from Yorkshire and Headingly from Leeds. Someone else tactlessly suggested Frost should dash up to Holyrood and offer his support to the SNP.
Such are the unfathomable contradictions of Brexit.
A parting of the ways is coming between the Brexit ultras, those who believe sovereignty is everything, regardless of cost, and the pragmatists who think the public will sooner or later vote with their wallets. One might say Brexit is putting this theory to the test.
We should not forget that Brexit was never official policy under any Conservative leader in the party’s history. After the dust had settled in 2016, moderate Conservatives found themselves reluctantly having to adopt the flagship policy of UKIP, the very party that David Cameron hoped to crush, or at least render hors de combat.
This was done without any serious consideration of what Brexit even meant in practice. In hindsight, it’s clear that the party should not have used the referendum as a tool to crush the Eurosceptics in its ranks. It should have made clear its position on Europe, and stood by that position – one way or another.
Because along with Nigel Farage’s entire raison d’être, the party unwittingly imported a potential future schism. The only way it could have been avoided was by Brexit being acknowledged as a great success. It’s pretty obvious now that is not going to happen.
The Conservative Party must soon make up its mind what it’s for – just as it should have made up its mind on the run up to the referendum in 2016.
As Britain shifts inevitably back towards rejoining the European bloc, there will be no space for two Eurosceptic parties to survive. The Tories should relinquish the wilderness to the Reform Party and remake themselves as moderates on the centre-right, less ideological and more pragmatic.
Otherwise, it may turn out that Brexit heralds the end of the Conservative Party.