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  1. Politics
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2 February 2023

Brexit is slowly killing the Conservative Party

A party that has defined itself in opposition to the EU will be left marooned by an ever-more pro-European electorate.

By David Gauke

Did you enjoy Brexit Day? Not so much? You were not alone.

Tuesday was the third anniversary of the UK leaving the European Union. Naturally, those of us who thought that Brexit would be a mistake have been quick to point out that Brexit is proving to be a mistake, aided by the International Monetary Fund’s assessment that the UK is on the verge of becoming the only major economy to shrink in 2023.

The more interesting response has come from those who supported Brexit and saw our departure from the EU on 31 January 2020 as a moment of celebration. Yes, the familiar voices – Johnson, Frost, Hannan, Rees-Mogg et al – have been on the airwaves but it is striking how downbeat and defensive they have become.

If there was plentiful evidence of Brexit being a success, we can be sure it would be shouted from the rooftops. We would be hearing about the exciting new trade deals signed, the unpopular and burdensome regulations that have been removed, the tech sectors that had boomed because of our new regulatory agility, the extra money poured into the NHS as a consequence of ending our EU contributions, and the higher real wages for UK workers now that EU migration was controlled.

Instead, the Brexiteers are on the back foot. All our problems stem from Covid (or, to be precise, our overly stringent lockdowns) and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, they say. Anyway, we haven’t taken advantage of our new freedoms because ministers and civil servants have been too timid to diverge from the EU. That must be it. We have not even properly Brexited yet, even if nearly everyone making this complaint supported the withdrawal agreement in 2019 and the UK-EU trade deal in 2020 (and, in the case of David Frost, negotiated both). Brexit, like communism, has never been properly tried.

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If you backed Brexit but are explaining why it is not yet working, you are losing. And an examination of the polling shows that the Brexiteers are losing the argument. In 629 out of 632 British constituencies, those who regret Brexit outnumber those who do not, according to polling published by UnHerd. In two out of the remaining three, it is a tie.

All this creates a dilemma for Rishi Sunak as to what his political strategy should be. The 2019 Conservative victory was based on stopping Jeremy Corbyn and getting Brexit done. With Corbyn finished, the Tories might be expected to lean heavily on the Brexit issue to shore up the Red Wall but it does not appear to be the vote winner it once was, especially in working class constituencies.

The choice for the Conservatives is either to move on and say as little as possible about the topic or to double down and try to re-win the argument.

On the evidence of this week, Sunak appears to be leaning towards the former. He did produce a Twitter thread celebrating the anniversary but there was a sense that he was phoning it in. The government otherwise did little to highlight the occasion and did not put up a minister, for example, for the Newsnight debate on the subject. At the same time, unsurprisingly, Boris Johnson chose to lean into the argument, boasting about the vaccine rollout (the one that happened while we were still obliged to comply with EU rules) and looked forward to unspecified benefits to come.

It is nonsense, of course but, as often appears the case, Sunak lacks the political strength to repudiate the Johnsonian position or the shamelessness to replicate it.

The pro-Brexit arguments are very thin but there is a short-term tactical argument that, unless it can be revived as a positive reason for voting Tory, the Conservatives cannot win the next election. But there is also a longer-term strategic question, which is whether the Tories’ continued commitment to a hard Brexit will make the party unelectable.

The anti-Brexit mood is most acute among younger voters, where even the minority who supported Leave are changing their minds faster than older voters, according to a report by UK in a Changing Europe. If this continues, “voter replacement” (the euphemism for young voters joining the electoral roll and older voters dying) will move public opinion even further towards a pro-EU position by the time we get to a general election in 2028 or 2029.

If the Tories lose next time – as seems very likely – they will eventually have to go through a period of modernisation in which unpopular policies are dropped and the party has to demonstrate that it has changed. To win in the late 2020s or 2030s, a more pragmatic approach to the EU will be necessary. Such a modernisation will be infinitely harder to do than anything attempted by David Cameron after 2005.

Since 2019, the Conservatives have defined themselves as the party of hard Brexit. They may be tempted to do so again in 2024. This will not be straightforward even in the short term but, in the longer term, it is a political dead end.

The Conservative Party’s longevity and success has depended upon its ability to transform itself to reflect changing times. It has, at different points, been Europhile and Eurosceptic, protectionist and liberal, isolationist and interventionist. To appeal to an electorate that will have concluded that hard Brexit – and maybe Brexit altogether – has failed may prove to be a transformation too far.

[See also: Brexit has been a disaster but Remainers need to get real]

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