12 April 2019

The Conservatives’ reckoning with reality cannot come soon enough

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Today could have been very different. Indeed, for a short time on Wednesday, as Emmanuel Macron flirted with his inner Gaullist, it looked like the EU Council would not extend Article 50 and that Britain might now be out. In the end though the French President resisted ‘le grand non’ and we remain. Britain’s new departure date is set for Halloween.

What could possibly go wrong? For the Tories, staring grimly at the launch of Nigel Farage’s latest pro-Brexit vehicle, the answer must surely be lots.

In theory the extra time should make a significant difference. One of Brexit’s many riddles is that a broad coalition of parliamentary mini-factions deliberately took us to the brink of no deal in pursuit of an electoral episode – be that a general election, a second referendum or a Tory leadership contest. Yet of course having nurtured this crisis none of these events were possible precisely because of the imminent crisis. With that no longer the case we could now be on a conveyer belt to one, if not all three, of these events.

Of the three, a Tory leadership contest seems the most certain. Of course it is technically true Theresa May is immune from a confidence vote until December. However, I would not bet on her enduring much in the way of further humiliation. When even Mark Francois is giving ‘personal vision’ speeches in airless Westminster locales, the Prime Minister must know the game is up.

Still, as a non-Tory looking in, it is difficult to shake the thought that the party is about to commit an enormous strategic blunder. For the question must seriously be asked what on earth would such a contest materially change about Brexit? The parliamentary arithmetic would be unaltered, the country no less divided and any hoped for poll bounce will surely be withheld unless and until the job of delivering Brexit is fulfilled. At this point the momentum towards a general election may be unstoppable. But do not think for one moment that Albion is not so perfidious as to elect Jeremy Corbyn in what would, for him, be God-given circumstances.

Yet even without such rune-reading the most important fact would remain unchanged. That is, that the EU has made it quite clear there will never be any trade deal without one of three things – the backstop, full single market and customs alignment, or an as yet unborn technological solution that would allow for frictionless trade across the Irish border. And as the latter of these is currently a unicorn, it is surely the backstop that provides for the most meaningful Brexit deal possible.

It is important that Conservatives fully appreciates what this means. For there will undoubtedly be grassroots pressure in any leadership contest to reject this choice and leave without a deal. But the reality is that the no deal option, like so many ideas put forward in this debacle, confuses ends and means. Because unless no deal hardens to never deal – which is to say unless Britain refuses the prospect of a trade deal with, by an enormous margin, its biggest trade partner – then no deal too is a chimera.

You can still argue for it as a tactic to strengthen our negotiating hand. Hell, you can argue for it if you harbour a strange and rather unconservative preference for chaos over order. But what you absolutely cannot do is argue for it as a route to a ‘Super Canada’ style relationship with the EU. They have already named their price in any free trade agreement. It’s called the backstop.

As Kristian Niemitz pointed out on CapX earlier this week, there is an important lesson here about the centrality of pooling sovereignty to trade deals. But for now focus on the political strategy. The launch of Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party today should be a visible reminder of what the Conservative Party cannot credibly become without letting Jeremy Corbyn in — sooner or later it must compromise with reality. It would be infinitely better for the party if it could do that now, grant May her legacy, deliver Brexit, defeat Remain and allow the next Conservative leader a clean slate to seek a mandate for our future relationship.

If instead it pursues an unobtainable purity, it is doomed.

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Alan Lockey is Head of Research at Demos.