23 May 2018

Brexit has become a Conservative crisis

By Nick Denys

How can Boris Johnson and Phillip Hammond make polar-opposite statements on the biggest issue facing our country, bad-mouth the Prime Minister, and both keep their jobs?

Why are Conservative MPs busy fighting each other?

What could possibly make some Conservative’s believe that a snap general election is what we all need?

The answer to all of these questions is Brexit.

Britain’s departure from the EU has triggered an existential crisis in the Conservative Party, a crisis that so far it has not found a way of dealing with. This doesn’t just hamper the Cabinet in agreeing a clear path to Brexit. It has also disabled the machinery of government, preventing effective decision making on a wide range of domestic issues.

Brexit is not a particularly conservative pursuit. Leaving the EU is exactly the sort of upheaval that conservatives are rightly suspicious of. It was done against the advice of the sort of institutions most conservatives argue should be respected. It was also opposed by a majority of Conservative MPs.

The problem, however, is that stopping Brexit is just as unconservative. The vast majority of Parliament voted for the referendum and for triggering Article 50. The rules of the game must be respected. The referendum was divisive, pitting Conservative against Conservative. There is no evidence that people have changed their minds. To have a second referendum, or worse ignore the leave result, would cause great anger, thus accelerate the growth of populism and further fracture the UK.

Europe has been an unhelpful distraction for Conservatives for some time. Ten years ago, when I went to my first ever local Conservative event, the Association Chairman cornered this new young member.

I was subjected to a 20-minute lecture on why Britain needed to leave the EU and strengthen the Commonwealth. I listened in perplexed silence, having never come across anyone passionate about such things.

Over the next decade I got used to sporadic rants against the EU as part and parcel of any Conservative function. But these expressing of views never part of proper debates. It didn’t occur to me at the time how big a mistake that was.

Last Autumn I attended a drinks reception in my local association. It was a casual sort of affair. Many of the faces were familiar, though we all noticed that the continuing downward trend in attendance from previous years.

Johnny, a stalwart of local Conservatism, approached me.

“Nick, I am worried about Brexit,” he said.

Johnny, like most of the members at the reception, had first joined the Conservatives in the mid-1970s and still talked warmly about Young Conservative dances.

“Oh, really. What are you worried about,” I asked.

Johnny had been an ardent Eurosceptic. I knew that he would always strongly favour Brexit but I wondered if he had now become aware of the logistical enormity of the task.

“I am worried that Brexit will not be hard enough,” he said, to my surprise.

The first phase of the negotiations had just been completed and the rhetoric from the Conservative leadership was triumphant and not exactly soft.

“What would you like to happen that is not happening,” I asked.

Johnny thought for a second and then replied: “I think we should just walk away, there’s no need to negotiate.”

I was stunned by the recklessness of this suggestion. Leaving the structures of the EU in an unorderly fashion would be like jumping out of a plane without a parachute.

All I could muster as response was: “Johnny, that’s mad.”

Johnny looked at me, “Maybe you are right. Where’s the buffet?”

For years, anti-EU rhetoric within the Conservative Party, no matter how outlandish, was never challenged. Ambitious young MPs, such as David Cameron, did not want to challenge the membership.

The merits of leaving the EU were barely debated. Instead it was thought best to let the Anti-EU obsessed “bang on” about federalism, accompanied by a nod and a wink from those who wanted promotion.

The result was an environment within the Conservative Party that made it impossible to have a rational debate about the EU or what Brexit should look like in practice. It also meant that Remain supporting Conservative MPs had no credibility when during the referendum campaign they suddenly had to explain their support for the EU. This atmosphere of mistrust has spilt over into today’s debate about how to best Brexit.

Conservatives worried about the future health of their party badly need to change the nature of the conversation on Brexit. All Conservatives need to press the rest button, forgot who said what about the EU in the past, and tackle the Brexit challenge with a clear head.

Churchillian talk of courageous lions, and patriots and traitors, is undoubtedly satisfying, but it is ultimately hollow.

First-off the Conservative Party needs to deliver Brexit. There has been a lot of unhelpful debate about what the referendum result meant. The question on the ballot paper was: Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union? A majority put a cross in the box Leave the European Union.

The referendum results means that the United Kingdom should leave the European Union, including all its structures, no ifs or buts. The Single Market, Customs Union, EU Court of Justice are all very clearly institutions of the EU, along with the Commission and European Parliament. What is as equally clear is that untangling our bureaucratic structure from the governance system we have been a part of since the 70s is a mammoth, complex and often boring task.

This needs to be done properly, and we cannot just walk away like an irresponsible teenager. Getting that separation right is also a prerequisite to creating the post-Brexit relationship with the EU and the rest of the world that so appealed to many Leave supporters.

Once the the Conservative Government has delivered Brexit, the Party needs to figure out what type of relationship it believes the UK should have with the EU – and also with other big trading partners such as the US and China.

This will involve passionate debate within the Party, and it would probably be useful if there was a way for members to express what approach they believe is best. It is also possible that this vision will be tested against the Labour alternative at a general election.

The extension of the transition period to three years would be the safest way to enable that debate to happen. This should not trouble leavers as the extension would be to make sure Brexit is done well, not delayed indefinitely.

Most importantly, the Conservatives cannot let the massive Brexit challenge get in the way of the considerable every-day problems that need to be dealt with at the same time.

It is true that there is little bandwidth in Government to look at domestic policy issues, but it is not true that there is nothing that can be done to solve this problem. Politically, we are in an uncertain but exciting time. Brexit, the end of austerity and rapid technological change make this a moment that Britain – and the Conservatives – cannot afford to squander. The case for the Government investing extra resources into driving forward the domestic policy agenda is unanswerable.

The Conservative Party is currently frozen by the Brexit challenge. Unless Conservatives understand this, and then have the confidence to look beyond Brexit, the party risks indulging in the kind of complacency that would end with Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell. That would be unforgivable.

Nick Denys is Head of Policy at Tory Workers.