While the long-term effect of the 2016 vote to leave the EU remains in dispute, this much is true: it has been a disaster for the Conservative Party. Brexit has gummed up the workings of Whitehall, leaving the government with little time or energy to draw up policy on other matters. It has turned Boris Johnson, once the party’s all-purpose electoral asset, into a Marmite figure, hated and loved in equal measure. And it forced the early retirement of David Cameron: yes, a flawed prime minister, but one whose broad appeal cannot be matched by any other senior Tory.
In Birmingham in recent days there was a palpable mood of discontent about the leadership, and powerful concern about the party’s future. Tory MPs in marginal seats, facing a tough battle to hold their constituencies next time, look at Theresa May and know they have no realistic hope of any help from above while she is in charge. Not that the other options are immediately attractive. As one junior minister observed to me recently: “No one gets out of bed thinking, how can I make Jeremy Hunt or Sajid Javid prime minister?” (There are a good number of Conservative MPs who get out of bed thinking about how they can make sure Boris Johnson never enters No 10.)
But the party’s biggest personnel problem isn’t inside its parliamentary ranks, but out in the country. The Conservative coalition is an alliance of committed Leavers and a small rump of reconciled Remainers. According to polling conducted by Opinium for the think tank Demos, 44 per cent of 2017 Tory voters regard securing Brexit as a higher political priority than seeing off Jeremy Corbyn at the next election. That coalition wasn’t big enough for May to win a majority in 2017 and it isn’t geographically dispersed enough to be certain of securing enough seats to govern effectively under Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system next time.
So, who should the Conservatives be targeting? The voters who didn’t support them last time are a ragbag of ardent Remainers, first-time voters inspired by Corbyn’s radicalism, and left-leaning Leavers, still suspicious of the Tories as the party of the moneyed interest.
For the party’s most committed Eurosceptics, the path is clear: strike a loose free-trade agreement with the rest of the EU, free the United Kingdom from the strictures of the European Court of Justice and end the unrestricted movement of people. Then embark on a programme of deregulation, corporate and other tax cuts, and strike free trade deals with the rest of the world. Once Brexit is accomplished (with the help of Labour Leavers’ votes to pass the bill in the Commons) a reunited Tory party can bask once again in its reputation for economic competence, such as it is.
There is just one problem with this argument: many Leave voters are not economic liberals. They did not vote for Brexit to roll back food safety legislation in order to increase trade with the US, or to import more goods from Singapore. The right are swift to denounce Corbyn for not noticing the disconnect between the views of his keenest supporters and the country at large. But they should apply the same scepticism to the cheers Hunt received when his conference speech attacked those who claim the Brexit vote was a rejection of liberal globalisation. The appeal of “global Britain” is largely confined to existing Tory voters.
Conservatives comfort themselves that the young voters flocking to Labour are, at heart, economically liberal. They enjoy the benefits of the new and largely unregulated internet giants such as Uber and Deliveroo, and want to own their own homes. That is true enough, but those young people also regard Brexit as both a cultural affront and a danger to their future prosperity. Remain means more to them than ride-sharing. In any case, a culture war is only good politics when, like Remainers, you’re on the losing side: after all, the defeated have a reason to keep voting for a party that hints it might reverse the result. When you win, as Brexiteers have, not all the victors will reward you – while the losers still blame you. And so it is with Brexit. The Conservatives have been burdened with delivering a policy that has for decades functioned as an alluring fantasy, untroubled by practical concerns.
So, again, where do fresh Tory voters come from? There is arguably an electoral majority to be won with the kind of economic and social liberalism David Cameron offered – but it means winning over Remain voters. Yet for now, and for the foreseeable future, these voters are opposed to the Conservatives on cultural grounds. For what the Tories are offering – Brexit and economic liberalism – there is also an electoral coalition. But its high watermark is probably winning a majority of seats on Westminster City Council, rather than at the parliament at Westminster.
The only sustainable future for the Tories as a party of Leave is one in which they embrace and extend their electoral dominance among the retired, with generous public services paid for by greater taxes on the working young. The “British deal” becomes 50 years of hard toil in exchange for 20 years of a triple-locked state pension at the end of it. It is recognisably the philosophy and the governing project of a conservative party. But it’s very far from the principles that animate the current iteration of the Conservative Party.
That leaves the Tories approaching the next election with the same assumption as in 2017: that fear of Labour will keep them in office. The alternative is to accept that they cannot continue to be both a party of free markets and a party of Leave. And that is a far bigger task than making sure the stage set doesn’t fall down during Theresa May’s conference speech, or that a glitch in the official conference app does not reveal cabinet ministers’ private phone numbers.
This article appears in the 03 Oct 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The fury of the Far Right