• Patrick Cox

Brexit Breakdown: Conservatives

The Conservatives are in government, but not in power. How long can this carry on?

Theresa May on the steps of Downing Street in London, the famous black door behind her
Theresa May on the steps of Downing Street

The Conservative Party Conference returns to Birmingham at the beginning of October, only a couple of year since it was last here. In the interim much has changed.

The Conservative Party is, like all the others, a coalition of interests bound together by the vagaries of our First-Past-the-Post electoral system. Under what other electoral circumstances would slipper wearing jazz-bothering europhile Ken Clarke share a political party with a slam-the-doors-shut, EU-hating free-marketeer like Peter Bone?

The split in the Conservative Party over Europe is more like a wound that's healed over numerous times. The party has a complex relationship with Europe. Ever since their Prime Minister Ted Heath took the country into the fore-runner of the EU, the EEC, in 1973 there have been those within Tory ranks opposed to the idea. When Britain held its first referendum on European membership two years later the official party line was to remain in. A vocal minority of Tory nationalists even campaigned under the slogan 'Back your local continent' as if - in a mistake more geographical than political - Great Britain was the equal of all the rest of Europe put together.

The referendum of June this year was in some respects a re-enacting of a former battle. A little-loved but practical-seeming official line from a new and modernising party leader (Thatcher then, Cameron today) against a die-hard group of MPs convinced of the UK's continued greatness, and suspicious of ceding powers to a mythic 'Brussels'. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

Except this time everything was different. The result was not a foregone conclusion and to the surprise of the establishment in politics, the media and the professions Britain is heading for the Brexit.

Why? Is it the Tory party that's changed? Or is it the country? And what will happen to Tory party post-referendum?

Time untied

The difference between the 1975 referendum and the 2016 vote is time. 41 years, a full generation. Time erodes some certainties and allows other tiny shoots to mature into full-spreading trees.

The European project - the idea of bringing closer together all the countries of Europe, politically and economically - makes perfect sense for the post-war generation. A 50-year old in 1975 would have daily carried around the baggage of two pan-European wars. The First World War would have cast a long shadow over their family's lives. In their childhood the old soldiers, with limbs missing, perhaps still shell-shocked, would have been a common presence. Although too young to have fought, our 50 year-old would have lived through the Second World War. Anything that could prevent the calamity of European strife once more made perfect practical sense. If it was also a way to bring greater prosperity, and a new, positive place for national feeling, then so much the better. Arguing with our European neighbours led only one way, and the British people knew it.

Over the years, and indeed fairly quickly, the EEC became the EC and then the EU. Along the way Thatcher went from supporting it to being openly hostile. Various treaties added to the mechanisms and structures of the project, and the original purpose - for some - appeared to have been lost. Britain experienced its own problems in the 1970s and then a new kind of exciting Atlanticist success in the 1980s. Even something as basic as where counted as 'Europe' became complicated by the fall of Communism by 1991.

As memories faded, so too did faith in government and bureaucrats. Those clever chaps in Whitehall had helped defeat the Nazis and engineered a post-war economic boom. But government and politicians seemed powerless before the labour disputes and rampant inflation of the '70s, and the inequality of the '80s. When Gordon Brown, styled as an 'Iron Chancellor', tried revive the idea of technocratic infallibility in the late 1990s he was only serving to mine out a seam on the verge of collapse. When the 2008 financial crisis hit, any final vestige of faith in the political elite finally evaporated. Brown's golden stock was rendered base in a kind of reverse political alchemy. From there it is only short hop to Michael Gove's recent pronouncement that "British people are tired of listening to experts".

A house divided

Where does this leave the Tories? In short - no better than the rest of the parties.

The Conservatives do still hold the reigns of power. They has been able to exploit the flexible British constitution - that gives all power to the government in the time between general elections - to decide the course of the nation's fortunes with nothing even approaching a mandate. They have grasped the prized chalice of power, and have no intention of giving it up. Unfortunately for them, and for Theresa May specifically, it is a poisoned one, one from which they none-the-less sup enthusiastically.

In Theresa May they have a Prime Minister who is demonstrably not up to the job. Her performance in the Commons has been lacklustre, and her policy choices bizarre, unless they were designed to unite her party against her. The Tories themselves are still bruised from the terrible 'blue-on-blue' in-fighting which was a feature of the referendum campaign. As is always the case with the party, the worst of it took place in private, except for the spectacularly brutual political-assassination attempt by Gove on Boris Johnson.

Which all appears trivial compared to the terrible mess they have created for themselves by losing the vote itself. The initial economic fall-out from the result has not been apocalyptic, as some predicted it would be. There is still plenty of time for a bleeding out of business and academia though. Crucially, government will be tied up with the job of extricating the UK from the EU for many years to come. It my have seemed that bureaucrats were inefficient and made mistakes in the past. The Brexit negotiations have the potential to be a meta-omnishambles.

'You get the government you deserve' is a hackneyed political truism. In this case it was the government that got its comeuppance. Cameron called the referendum in an attempt to out-flank the Eurosceptics in his own party. His own party will suffer as a result, whether sooner or later. It is through one piece of spectacular good fortune that the Tories have maintained an even keel so far: the more-or-less total deterioration of the Labour party as an alternative political force, and as the official opposition in parliament.

The situation as it exists cannot last indefinitely. Either there is some sort of return to a two-party status quo, or a much more thorough constitutional resettlement which restores some of the country's faith in the democratic process.

As things stand though the distain with which government is viewed, built up over so many decades, will poison the Tories the longer they stay in power - slowly but surely. Much has changed - but much remains.


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