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Why the Tories will soon be Remainers

Are young conservatives pining for Brussels?

By William Atkinson

Last night (3 May) Robert Peston unveiled two opinion polls that might scupper my budding career as a Generation Z Tory commentator. The Savanta polls of 18- to 25-year-olds suggested only 15 per cent would vote Tory at the next election, compared with 60 per cent for Labour, and that 86 per cent would vote to rejoin the EU in a second referendum.

Peston, the political editor of ITV News, has a peerless talent for stating the obvious. In 2016 75 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds voted Remain. A poll three years later suggested that a similar number of the two million or so new young voters who had missed out the first time would do so in a second referendum. Since the largest share of people in 629 out of 632 British constituencies now regret Brexit, it’s hardly surprising that those figures have risen.

I don’t regret backing Leave. Yet I must admit that it is a hollow victory. Not only because of my party’s failures to do anything meaningful with our newfound independence, but because I suspect it will not last.

By the time I am in my 40s the Tories will probably support rejoining the EU. Already today’s millennials and my fellow Gen Zers are more left-wing than previous cohorts. There are many obvious reasons: our appalling housing market, more graduates, inherited social liberalism, greater ethnic diversity, a worrying tendency towards teetotalism.

Demographics are not destiny, as growing numbers of ethnic minority Republicans in the US show. But when two-thirds of millennials who backed the Tories before the EU referendum say they will never vote for them again, and 25 per cent strongly dislike us, this is about values, not just rents. Brexit is killing the party’s future.

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Conservatives continually U-turn. They introduced the Corn Laws and repealed them, signed the Munich Agreement and worshipped Churchill; imposed austerity and pat themselves on the back for recruiting 20,000 more police officers. Under Ted Heath the Conservatives took the UK into Europe; under Boris Johnson they took it out. Whoever is leading the party in 20 years’ time could take Britain back in.

To opponents, this politicking seems unprincipled, even outrageous. That it certainly is, but it also explains why the Conservatives have been in power for roughly two-thirds of the last 200 years. As Andrew Gimson has put it, the Tories win “by working out what the nation needs, and providing it more quickly than its rivals do”.

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[See also: Why Rishi Sunak wants to delay Sue Gray’s job with Labour for as long as possible]

Of course, tomorrow’s Rishi Sunaks would need to actually wake up, spot which way the wind is blowing, and reverse ferret. Unlikely, perhaps, if the average teenage Tory is the sort of Brideshead-adjacent social conservative who apparently populated last year’s Reasoned conference, an event put on by, and for, young Conservatives.

But this is to misunderstand your average Conservative youth (all eight of us, that is). Analysis of the British Election Study shows most 18-25 year olds tend to be economically and socially liberal, relatively comfortable with immigration, and no fans of Farage. Yes, a majority of young Tories may have backed Brexit. But those noted Remoaners Charles Moore and Nigel Lawson voted Yes in 1975.

The Tory party’s future therefore looks to be a battle between the liberal-minded children of David Cameron who will make up the party establishment, and a right-leaning commentariat. The Conservative Party platform of 2045 might not be too far away from today’s Lib Dems – but hopefully without the nimbyism.

The problem with this thesis for Tory Europhiles is that it is wholly focused on Britain, and neglects what is going on just across the Channel. This is hardly a new problem, but it is only likely to become bigger. Young Brits might be trending to the left, and waving their blue and yellow flags accordingly. Yet their continental equivalents are voting for Marine Le Pen and Giorgia Meloni.

Similarly, stripped of the UK, the EU has lost its biggest champion for economic liberalisation, the country that pushed for the single market and qualified majority voting. It is no surprise that in the UK’s absence the EU has doubled down on debt-pooling, industrial subsidies, and other forms of protectionism. How will it change further as the politics of member states drags it ever further to the right?

As Ed West has argued, it’s not wholly impossible that Leavers and Remainers might eventually switch sides. But for the Conservatives to even be confronted with that problem, they need to remain a viable force in the next few decades – and polls like last night’s make that seem a fragile prospect.

[See also: Rishi Sunak, not Keir Starmer, is now the leader under pressure]