Five years ago, a majority of Conservative MPs voted for Remain. The Conservative Party had long been Eurosceptic – opposed to “ever closer union” and membership of the single currency – but even its 2015 election manifesto, in addition to promising an in-out referendum, had praised the single market and declared “we say… yes to a family of nation states, all part of a European Union”.
By the time we reached the 2019 general election, all Conservative parliamentary candidates had signed up to a very hard Brexit. Many of us who had prevented a disastrous no-deal Brexit had been thrown out of the parliamentary party and Nigel Farage had agreed to stand down Brexit Party candidates in Conservative-held seats. As an electoral strategy, it was a triumph. Boris Johnson was returned with a majority of 80 seats, having captured large numbers of traditionally Labour constituencies. To exploit this new political configuration, the Conservative Party has fundamentally changed. Its voting base is more working-class, culturally conservative and economically interventionist than previously. The part of the Thatcherite legacy that stood for free markets, economic openness and fiscal conservatism has been largely repudiated.
It is a political realignment that is not unique to the UK – similar trends have been seen elsewhere, most notably in the US. But Brexit has accelerated the process.
With Leave voters efficiently distributed and Remain voters divided between several parties, the Conservatives are in an electorally dominant position, if dependent on older, less-educated voters who will represent a smaller share of the electorate in future. For the moment, the transformation of our politics by Brexit leaves the Conservatives well-placed to win elections. Unfortunately for the country, by becoming a more populist party, it is also less well-placed to govern well.
David Gauke is a former Conservative cabinet minister