Theresa May “has satisfied no one." Photo: REX. SHUTTERSTOCK

The Conservative Party has a problem—it’s no longer conservative

It is impossible to look at what we have done over Brexit without astonishment
January 28, 2019

As a practising Anglican I go to church on a Sunday. Among other things the prayers of intercession ask of me to pray that we may be “quietly governed.”

I find these words often spring to mind at the moment. When I first became familiar with them, I saw them as a quintessential encapsulation of what United Kingdom governments ought to be trying to deliver to their citizens. I have to accept, however, that this view probably identifies me as a Conservative, as there are some parties that give every indication that they believe that some shaking up and disruption can be beneficial to furthering social progress.

But this has, on the whole, not been the Conservative way, and when more radical measures have been deemed necessary, as under Margaret Thatcher, there has always been a slight sense of unease—remember the ageing Harold Macmillan’s unease over privatisation, which he called “selling off the family silver.” More radical right-wingers have sometimes complained of an inbuilt reluctance, inherent in our conservative philosophy, to upset the balance of any order we have inherited.

So it is impossible to look at what we have done over Brexit without astonishment. In the three years since David Cameron started the 2016 referendum process, we have taken our country on a path of revolutionary upheaval. Most oddly it has been demanded by Conservative Leavers in the name of restoring “traditional” government. Parliamentary sovereignty, our removal from the “foreign yoke” of the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice and “taking back control” of our borders so as to exclude foreigners are all invoked by those Conservatives supporting Brexit. Yet to achieve all this they demand that the principles of democratic representative government should be abandoned, and that MPs be reduced to mere agents in executing what they now consider to be “the People’s” demands. They consistently denounce any obstacles that our courts, insistent on the maintenance of the rule of law, might require to ensure that the process of Brexit is compliant with domestic and international legal obligations.

It is small wonder that all this has produced both chaos and paralysis in government and parliament. As the Brexit process has unfolded, the prime minister has tried to give effect to the referendum decision while striving to minimise the obvious risks to our economic wellbeing, national security and quality of life that come from the disentangling of a complex and settled relationship. Yet as we now see she has satisfied no one. The Conservative Leavers see only the end of their dreams of what Brexit should deliver and Remainers see that we are heading for a third rate future compared to what membership of the EU offers.

As the prime minister’s career has been intimately bound up with the grassroots of party membership, she is unwilling to risk offending them. A majority of them may be Leavers, but what form of Brexit they want is entirely unclear, because it was never defined during the 2016 referendum save as an inchoate vision. They are also now very worried, as the threat of a Corbyn-led Labour government is a nightmare for them just as it is for me. This seems to leave many torn between accepting the prime minister’s deal as the one way out of growing chaos, and a belief that it betrays the country’s future. The constitutional implications of the Northern Ireland backstop add to the sense of dismay for a party that has always seen the maintenance of the union of the United Kingdom as a key objective.

As Prospect goes to press, I have no idea how these intense contradictions are going to be resolved. Some predict that we are going to break up as a party. But I certainly have nowhere else to go. The truth is that if it were not for Brexit and the issue of our relations with the EU, the broad church underpinned by pragmatism that has been the Conservative Party would encompass me and my Brexiteer colleagues without difficulty. The proposal I have pushed for, that we should return to the public and put the prime minister’s deal to them with the alternative option of remaining, is dismissed by the prime minister as a breach of her “sacred duty” to deliver Brexit. Yet it seems very odd to try to force through an outcome for which there is so little apparent support.

Our ability as a party to get through this crisis will determine our future fortunes. As a Conservative MP it is my duty to listen to colleagues and to try and find a way through. But we will not find one unless we remember that, historically, the secret of our success as a party has been our ability to provide hope, confidence and leadership for a much wider group of electoral supporters than our membership. Streams of emails may only be the roughest of guides, but I am struck by the numbers who write to me who once gave us their support and now do not. Unless we reassure them of our ability to deliver the quiet stable government they desire, our relevance to promoting the wellbeing of our country must be in question.