Why every possible Brexit outcome spells disaster for the Conservative Party

All Brexit outcomes spell the demolition of the oldest and most successful political party in the world
—and they'll only have themselves to blame

June 06, 2019
Photo: Daniel Leal-Olivas/PA Archive/PA Images
Photo: Daniel Leal-Olivas/PA Archive/PA Images

Hold the front page of the Daily Mail: Boris Johnson has told the truth. Emblazoned across Wednesday morning’s edition was his assessment, plain and stark: “The Tories face extinction.” At the first Tory leadership hustings the night before, Johnson told his parliamentary colleagues that the Conservatives would “never be forgiven” if they did not deliver Brexit by 31st October, and that that was also the route to stamping out the threat from Nigel Farage. All of this was accurate. As the Leave-sympathising academic Matthew Goodwin has put it, the Tories’ survival “depends on delivering Brexit.” There is just one problem. The Tories’ survival also depends on not delivering it.

The Conservative Party’s predicament is devastating, and devastatingly simple. Each possible road ends in disaster. Consider Johnson’s thesis. The new prime minister takes office at the end of July, beds in over the summer recess and then attempts to renegotiate the deal with the EU. The EU, which has said it will not renegotiate, declines to renegotiate.

Mindful that parliament will vigorously oppose no-deal, the PM once again requests an extension. He or she may avoid mutiny from the Tory backbenches—just—but the party will nonetheless be finished. The first act of the Brexit-cheerleading PM will have been to ask the EU to stay in, and Farage will gobble up Tory support just as he did in the European elections. This time it could be permanent.

So take the alternative. The PM decides not to request an extension. One of four things will then happen.

The first possibility: the October EU summit becomes a crisis management meeting as Brussels waves the UK off the cliff. We leave with no deal, the long-foretold disaster quickly emerges, and the government either falls or returns to Brussels on its hands and knees or both. The Tories’ reputation is shredded and its fate is sealed.

The second: parliament withdraws its confidence in the government as soon as the PM signals the new approach. Such “moderate” Tories as Philip Hammond, no less, have threatened to do so. The government falls before the October summit. Parliament launches a constitutional tussle to ensure that we do not tumble into the abyss on Halloween. A general election follows and the Tories are punished on both their flanks by Labour, the Brexit Party and the Lib Dems.

The third: parliament retains confidence in the government but enacts emergency legislation to avoid no-deal and force an extension, in the mould of Yvette Cooper’s bill in April. The PM is humiliated and must seek the extension. Brussels will almost certainly grant it: the EU will not push the UK off the cliff if it does not want to jump, and not even Emmanuel Macron will insist otherwise. After that, see above.

The fourth: parliament presses the nuclear button and revokes Article 50 altogether. Numerous Tory MPs have indicated that they would, however reluctantly, choose no-Brexit over no-deal. The Tories, the proclaimed party of Brexit, will no longer serve any purpose. Labour and the Lib Dems will claim the Remainers and Farage will scoop up the Leavers. The party could quite literally disintegrate.

Let us then retreat a little. The PM senses these dangers and decides to focus on getting the deal through. Simply: he or she will fail. Theresa May’s deal is so toxic it’s not even safe to bury it. Any adjustment from Brussels would involve either softening the political declaration—which poisons it even further for the Tories—or cutting the backstop down to just Northern Ireland, which cleaves the “Conservative and Unionist Party” in one clean slice. No other deal is possible. The Tories will be paralysed and then eaten.

Where next? A referendum. Whip for it and the Tories sign their death warrant. Have it forced upon them and they collapse anyway. And that’s just the torture of reaching the ballot box. What happens if Remain wins? The Tories will lose their raison d’etre. And Leave? Either we will be saddled with a hated deal for which the country will blame the Tories, or get no-deal and even stronger blame. There could be a ruinous general election before the referendum even takes place.

Let us return to the most fundamental issue at stake: “delivering Brexit.” This is what the Tories depend on to keep existing. But Brexit, in any form, will be nothing like what was promised. We will not be richer, freer or happier. Even with a soft Brexit the country will be poorer, angrier and isolated. The Brexit Party will call betrayal, as in all circumstances. Labour will say it should have been done differently. The rest will say it should never have been done at all. The only thing in common is that everyone will blame the Tories and almost nobody will vote for them.

Here, then, is the point. The real Brexit Party is not Farage’s new vanity bandwagon. It is the centuries-old Conservative Party—and will prove as fatal as claiming to be the Everyone-A-Millionaire Party. You may want something, believe in it and promise it, and sure enough people may applaud you, support it and vote for it, but eventually they will demand their million and you will be exposed for the fraud you are. It no longer matters for the Tories if Brexit ends in a deal, no-deal, a general election, referendum or revocation: they all spell the demolition of the oldest and most successful political party in the world, and it has only itself to blame.