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29 January 2019

We’re beginning to see how the Conservatives could fight another election on Brexit

One of the big questions MPs have has been answered. 

By Stephen Bush

The reason that MPs and frontbenchers – across all the political parties – give that an election is so unlikely is that the Conservatives have to avoid one because they cannot possibly cohere around any kind of Brexit position. One minister predicted that the party would “disintegrate” over the course of an election campaign.  Another told me it would be “the death of the party” as every single parliamentary candidate would put forward their own Brexit position.  

It’s not quite accurate to say that the Malthouse Compromise – the nominal plan around which a large number of MPs have been able to unify – has ended the Conservative Party’s divisions. Several Tory MPs are well aware that the contents are fiction and that it ignores several vital tradeoffs. But is has broadly quelled the party’s internal rows and, equally significantly, the nation’s broadcasters and much of the press has largely failed to ask any difficult questions like “How would this work?” “Why would the European Union agree to this?” and “You do know that’s not how the World Trade Organisation works, right?”

The secret to the party’s unity is that most Conservative MPs can broadly agree on what they want out of Brexit: to maintain the strength of the United Kingdom’s world-leading sectors, to safeguard the United Kingdom’s integrity, to maximise the country’s regulatory autonomy, to be able to pursue an independent trade policy and to maintain a decent standard of access to the single market.

The problem is that the second you ask anyone which of that shopping list to prioritise, unity breaks down. The Malthouse Compromise avoids all that by simply restating the shopping list.

What about Labour? Day to day, that party has a huge advantage over the Conservatives. If you picked almost any three Labour MPs at random you’d have three different opinions on Brexit, but they could all at least agree that they would rather be focussing on something else. (Even Kate Hoey, the most devoted of the party’s Leavers, has a wide range of interests outside of the Brexit question.) 

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But the problem is that while Labour can disagree more cordially, you couldn’t get anything like the same unity around what they want out of Brexit within the parliamentary Labour party, let alone the membership or the trade union movement.

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That’s not to say that an election is risk-free for the Tories (the biggest problem for the Conservatives is that any election called on Brexit would almost certainly move onto less comfortable topics). But it is to say that the general assumption that they couldn’t unify around an agreed Brexit position has a few holes in it.