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18 January 2018

Justine Greening speaks the Brexit truth that few Tories will admit

Brexit hurt the Conservatives badly at the last election and could well have long-run implications on their ability to form future majority governments.

By Stephen Bush

In a surprise to absolutely no-one but Theresa May, Justine Greening used her new-found freedom from the Cabinet to sound a warning on Brexit (which her constituency largely opposes) and its impact on the young (which her constituency contains in large number).

It’s easy to be cynical about her motives and it seems unlikely that the twin attraction of being a thorn in the side of a PM who treated Greening shabbily and whose allies briefed against her while maximising her hopes of holding onto her Putney seat don’t play a role.

But she’s also right. A great deal of sound and fury is being expended on the prospect of a second referendum before Brexit takes place. Absent a compelling plan to replace half of the Conservative parliamentary party and the Labour leadership too, that debate simply isn’t worth anyone’s time, as you can’t get to 325 votes for a second referendum in the current House of Commons.  (And as I explain in my column this week, the Labour leadership is well entrenched and likely in it for the long haul.)

The problem for Brexiteers is not that Brexit won’t happen but that it will either be a failure economically and/or it will never expunge the cultural taint it carries among voters under 40. (Actually a Brexit which hits longterm growth is probably safe as it’s always hard to argue a hypothetical. A Brexit that is identified with everything people dislike about the Tory party is going to struggle to maintain the support of 50 per cent + 1  of people even if it delivers blockbuster economic growth.)

Greening’s intervention also speaks to a truth that few Conservatives have publicly acknowledged: which is that Brexit hurt them badly at the last election and there is a good chance that it will have long-run implications on their ability to form stable majority governments in future.  Of the things May has done well since the election is publicly acknowledging the fears of Remainers, which helps to heal that particular Tory wound.

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A great deal of faith is invested in the idea that Brexit will be “resolved” at the time of the next election and the Conservatives won’t still have difficulties in Remain country.  But the continuing impact of Nafta in the United States, a quarter of a century after it was signed shows that Tory difficulties wherever the 48 per cent gather in great numbers are unlikely to vanish simply as a result of the passage of time.