Conservatives given a glimpse of a world where Theresa May never became Prime Minister

Today’s Commons debate gave an insight into a world where Brexit didn’t become a Tory-only problem.

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On the same day that Theresa May told Conservative MPs she will step down as Prime Minister once the United Kingdom has formally left the European Union, we were given a window into what the United Kingdom’s Brexit debate might be like had she never entered Downing Street.

It was a lot better.

May did everything to avoid having to hold indicative votes on what resolution to the Brexit deadlock could command a support of a majority of MPs – she had ministers pledge to hold them to avoid MPs forcing her, broke those promises once she’d avoided defeat, delayed votes on her withdrawal agreement, shut most of her own MPs out of the decision-making process, before finally being forced to do so by a vote of MPs.

There are lots of people making the argument that the Brexit process is stuck in the mire because Brexit is an innately doomed project. I don’t buy that – there are 167 nations who are not inside the EU, and a great number of them are successful, whether they are within the EU’s regulatory orbit or entirely removed from it.

But there are 167 different ways to be outside the European Union and each comes with 167 different trade-offs. I don’t believe that there is a combination of trade-offs that is more desirable for the United Kingdom than the trade-offs involved with continuing membership, but it’s entirely possible that one exists; and it is certainly true that there are plenty of deliverable post-Brexit futures that wouldn’t shatter the political parties involved.

In the debate over possible future Brexits, for the first time since May became Prime Minister, you had a series of lucid debates about the various possible ways to resolve Brexit, and a honest account of the accompanying trade-offs. George Eustice, a former Ukip candidate and the United Kingdom’s longest-serving agriculture minister, made a strong case for the benefits of joining the European Economic Area’s Efta pillar. Joanna Cherry made a crisp argument for changing the legal default so that revocation of Article 50 is the default option in the event of the United Kingdom failing to reach an accord, rather than a no deal exit. Greg Hands dismantled the case for staying in a customs union while leaving the political project. Nick Boles made a very clear case for his preferred model of staying both within the single market and the customs union while leaving the political structures fo the EU.

May’s original approach to Brexit was to use it to try to realign British politics, based on the argument that a chunk of Labour’s traditional core vote “should” really be voting Conservative and that the Leave vote was the instrument by which their folly would be revealed to them. In the event, it didn’t work, and, while the defection of a large number of Ukip voters padded May’s popular vote total, the loss of 2015 Conservatives who backed a Remain vote in 2016 meant she lost her parliamentary majority.

In choosing to conduct the Brexit talks in a narrow and non-collegiate way May facilitated a politics where people could make a number of absurd claims without any political consequence. We’ve had a three year period in which it has variously been claimed you can have “a jobs-first” Brexit, that the only barrier to stopping Brexit is the intransigence of Jeremy Corbyn, that there can be a negotiated Brexit without some provision for the island of Ireland, and those are just the untruths I can remember off the top of my head. Almost every conceivable Brexit position has been castigated as treachery.

It can’t even have been said to have worked out well for the Conservative Party, the one group that May has really thought about throughout the Brexit process.  

It should be obvious that it is not in the interests of a political party to be defined as being the party of any one side of a referendum divide, particularly one like Brexit, where the vote was primarily driven by differences of culture and outlook rather than economic interest. By becoming a Brexit party, the Conservatives have ended up in a situation where they struggle to appeal to Remainers who align with their policy programme, but can’t easily make up the difference by winning over Leave voters, as the Leave voters they haven’t won aren’t aligned with them on policy.

What May should have done is been the author of a cross-party policy debate over the shape of Brexit, which would have made it hard for Labour to do the politically sensible thing of sending mixed signals on Brexit. Instead, she shut them out.

As a result, her successor, whoever they may be, will have a huge challenge on their hands if they are even to regain the small majority David Cameron had in 2015, let alone one enduring enough to implement a radical policy agenda any time soon.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.