Theresa May's half-Brexit party does not appeal to Leavers or Remainersby Justine Greening / May 3, 2019 / Leave a comment
Margaret Thatcher once said “standing in the middle of the road is very dangerous; you get knocked down by the traffic from both sides.” It’s a tough message, but she was right. Politics is about choices. The harsh reality is that the PM’s Brexit deal is political roadkill and parliament is in gridlock. For the sake of the national interest, ministers must decide on an alternative route, one that best brings the British people with it.
The parliamentary maths means paralysis will remain whoever is running the Tory party after Theresa May. But Conservatives must recognise why the PM’s deal has suffered historic defeats on three occasions. Her strategy was a misjudgment of how Brexitland politics works differently from our conventional party system. In Brexit Britain, the conventional parties don’t function. Instead, the parties are Leave and Remain. Until last July, the prime minister strongly represented the Leave “party,” in policy and rhetoric.
Yet without warning, she switched and effectively created a new third force—the half-Brexit party. Having disenfranchised Remain party voters with “Brexit means Brexit,” the PM’s new half-Brexit party then systematically disenfranchised previously loyal Leave party voters, which has left a wide open gap in the European elections for Farage’s self-styled “real” Brexit Party.
It was unrealistic to expect millions of voters to smoothly switch from their referendum Leave or Remain party to a new, unknown half-Brexit party. The best part of a year on from Chequers, just 12 per cent of people support the PM’s deal. The half-Brexit party has failed to carry parliament—it’s essentially lost three no-confidence votes.
So where next? There are no easy answers for the Conservatives or Labour, though a fudged choice is costlier for the Conservatives because we’re in government.
I fully recognise that many Leave voters see a clean-cut, hard Brexit as more in line with what they voted for in 2016. A Tory leadership contest looms that could produce a hard Brexit leader, followed by a reversion to being the “real” Brexit party. But will that deliver success at the next general election? We tested a hard Brexit strategy in 2017. Even with Ukip sometimes standing helpfully aside, the Tories shed seats in parliament. That’s because the combined “Brexit means Brexit” Conservative/Ukip vote share, taken as a whole, declined from 2015 to 2017. Gains in some places were outweighed by the loss of seats which were crucial in giving us a majority in 2015. The hard Brexit strategy destroyed majorities in places like Battersea, Brighton and Oxford that had been won by a Cameron-led Conservative Party, better representing the values of younger voters.
So what if the Tories instead took a soft-Brexit tack? To younger people in such places, soft Brexit is still Brexit. Meanwhile, the 2017 hard Brexit coalition will splinter, because the new Brexit Party will surely run candidates in future elections, cannibalising the Conservative Brexit-supporting vote.
As John Curtice’s polling work shows, voters see Brexit as a proxy for two competing visions of Britain’s future: open and connected, or independent and free from EU bureaucracy. The longer the debate goes on, the more it reshapes politics. Curtice says those values and Brexit increasingly drive how votes are cast, overriding previous political affiliation. Pollsters estimate for every year that passes, 250,000 net Conservative voters are lost—as one put it to me, “one funeral at a time.” We beat Labour by 700,000 votes in 2017, so by 2020 we are structurally behind before a single vote is cast. And with Brexit increasingly reflecting values, it’s unlikely voters will shrug off whatever Brexit stance the Conservatives have taken. The memory will, for good or ill, hardwire Europe into people’s political choice.
Some will say, “we’ve already had the in/out referendum” and people wanted hard Brexit. Others that we must find a soft Brexit compromise to bring everyone with us. Others again will say Brexit is a mess, people have changed their minds and we should simply revoke Article 50. The point I’m making is that there may be genuine reasons for taking any of these routes, but each of them runs massive electoral risks for both main parties, and especially the Conservatives.
It really is not in the national interest to hope we can pick the path forward with the most public support because we are too scared to find out for sure, in case it creates turbulence within the big parties. And make no mistake, if we get this wrong, we hand the keys of No 10 to Jeremy Corbyn. Not having a “final say” referendum—with the real, available choices, the PM’s deal, Remain and crucially including hard-Brexit no deal, with a first and second preference vote—means we are simply rolling the dice on Brexit. That’s wrong. It’s no way to bring the public with us, especially young people, on the most important issue in 50 years. Local election results show Labour is now also paying the price of half-Brexit party fudge. A general election may well only deliver them as a minority government, reliant on coalition partners demanding a second referendum as a price for their support.
Yes, it takes courage to admit we’re gridlocked and go back to voters. But it’s far worse to dodge their judgment, and then go the wrong way. To go back to Thatcher’s analogy: it’s dangerous standing in the middle of the road, but it’s also dangerous driving into oncoming traffic. We should double check which way it’s flowing before setting the Brexit satnav. That’s the responsible thing to do for both main parties, but especially my own.