Regarding oneself as apolitical is itself a political position, and in Britain it’s very often been a winning one, too. “I’d vote for anything that was broadly sensible” explains one newly-former Conservative to Gaby Hinsliff. Quite a swath of a nation that used to be known for moderation as well as reserve continues to feel the same way.
And yet the days of the “what counts is what works” pitch of David Cameron, Tony Blair, and long before them Harold Macmillan, suddenly seem to belong to another world. The autumn conference season saw the Labour Party move from a social democratic programme towards a more thoroughly socialist one, and a new absolutism creep even into the programme of the Liberal Democrats, with their new pledge to revoke Brexit without bothering to rerun and reverse the 2016 referendum.
It is, however, in the party that once elevated muddling through into doctrine of governance that the retreat from pragmatism has been most dramatic. Every other Conservative ambition has now been subordinated to the overriding vow to “get Brexit done.” An abstraction and a word that didn’t exist five years ago, the very term “Brexit” is an uncomfortable one for those Tories whose preferred starting point is always “the world as it is.” The ambiguities (and inconsistencies) from the winning Leave campaign initially left ample room for practical improvisation of a new, half-aligned relationship with the continent. That is what Theresa May tried. It was only after her failure to carry the day for compromise that the party morphed, with remarkable speed, into the language of “do or die.”
The truly new thing here is not the divisiveness of the hard Brexit policy nor the risk being run with prosperity, even though both aspects will worry many moderate Tories. After all, austerity was socially divisive too, and its economic effectiveness was bitterly disputed. The difference, though, was that the prevailing argument for it was a fundamentally conservative one. Rebalancing the books was a “nasty but necessary” job, something that had to be done for the sake of Britain’s financial order and its standing in the world: we did not want to end up “like Greece.” Today, by contrast, the decidedly unconservative argument is that the “will of the people” demands Brexit purity, and in its pursuit all sorts of traditions and institutions have been shoved out of the way: we have seen parliament shut down, the queen embarrassed, the prime minister reprimanded by the highest court in the land, and the government destroy its own majority with a sectarian purge.
One immediate effect for the party is seen round the cabinet table. Churchill damned Bonar Law’s short-lived administration a century ago as a “cabinet of the second eleven,” and historians may well judge the Johnson administration the same way. Rory Stewart, Amber Rudd, Justine Greening and Dominic Grieve (who are all now outside of the party) are in the same league as Ken Clarke and Michael Heseltine (out too) in a way that Gavin Williamson, Priti Patel and Grant Shapps pretty plainly are not.
“The decidedly unconservative claim is that the ‘will of the people’ requires Brexit purity”
The bigger question is whether, with the help of a spending splurge and a dash of “Boris bonhomie,” the Tories can recover their standing with moderate voters to carry the country. It cannot be ruled out. Johnson’s sunny optimism strikes a very different tone from the rage of Donald Trump. He is ahead in the polls, and there are still some impressive Tories devoted to due process and parliamentary democracy within his ranks, including MSP Adam Tomkins who explains why he is keeping the faith in the British constitution to restore balance to our politics. A lot turns on the next twists of the Brexit talks, the timing of any election, and whether or not the opposition rediscovers a preference for self-preservation over internecine civil war. The number of MPs swapping parties on all sides is, as I show, at historic heights.
But it is, as Hinsliff reports Ken Clarke saying, the Conservative Party that has most often been brought to the point of “nervous breakdown” by the European question. Even if it comes through the crisis, it will come through it changed. There will still be many who yearn for a tranquil politics, which rarely pronounces on high principle, which works with whatever practical fixes lie at hand, and—above all—never intrudes on their quiet and prosperous lives. Even after Brexit is “done,” if indeed it ever is, the traumas of its doing could leave these moderate conservatives on the hunt for a new home.