The Brexit crisis shows that the Conservatives have lost the ability to change

A party that was once capable of adapting to new forces has been trapped by its own rigidity. 

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In a crisis, the reactions of people under pressure often reveal something deeper, not just about their psychology but their overall destiny. The same is true for political parties. And what this week’s events are showing, as the Brexit agenda slides out of Theresa May’s control, is pretty fundamental for the Conservative Party. It has lost its capacity to adapt.

The signal fact is not that May suffered two historic defeats in parliament over the Withdrawal Agreement. It is that, for two years during the exit negotiations, she consistently drew indefensible “red lines” and then retreated from them to even shakier and less defensible positions. In sports parlance that would be called “losing” — and that Britain was defeated is a truth few politicians want to recognise.

Britain lost the Brexit negotiations because no possible form of Brexit was acceptable to those who want Brexit. They did not want a Canada-style free trade agreement because it would require an economically united Ireland. They did not want a Norway-style deal because it would kill the dream of turning Britain into an offshore venue for tax evasion and cheap labour.

May continually tried to achieve the impossible and, because of that, failed to achieve what was possible. She chose delay, obfuscation, blackmail and bribery as her tactics and they did not work. The result is a government that is about to lose control of the parliamentary agenda and fall apart in office.

If we trace the root cause of this malfunction, for an institution that deems itself the natural party of government, it is to be found in the class dynamics that are emerging in most Western economies, as their elites grapple with the failure of the neoliberal system.

There are now three types of Tory politician. First, the nationalist neoliberal, who wants to break up the multilateral system and use the resulting chaos to impose further austerity and privatisation, using racism and misogyny to assemble a mass electoral base. At the other end are the liberal multilateralists who — like Emmanuel Macron in France — have begun to realise they need a de facto coalition with the centre and centre left to revive consent for globalisation. In the middle are people “born to rule”.

Neoliberalism is a system formed through the coercive introduction of market relationships into all forms of social life. Because it worked for so long, it has produced — via the PPE course at Oxford, the legal profession, the business schools and a pampered upper stratum of the media — a class of people who seem pre-programmed to operate its institutions. Because, as a requirement of the neoliberal system, government departments became powerful siloes of business influence, being a minister came to feel like being a senior civil servant, only dimmer and more flamboyant.

If you want avatars for these three factions of modern Toryism, you could take Jacob Rees-Mogg as the representative of the nationalists, media select committee chair Damian Collins for the liberal wing and, as a specimen of flamboyant technocratic dimness, the Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson.

All parties in a first-past-the-post system have to be coalitions, but they are usually coalitions for pulling in the same direction. The Conservative Party, instead, has become a coalition for pulling in opposite directions. All want to save neoliberalism but none of them has a realistic understanding of how.

And while all the focus today is on the rebels — Rees-Mogg and the ERG versus Nick Boles, Oliver Letwin and the other Europhiles — the strategic problem lies with the born-to-rulers. If the instructions for running a neoliberal economy have been drummed into your brain, from your days at the Oxford Union to the small talk at last week’s Spectator cocktail party, it becomes very difficult to adapt to a situation where they no longer work.

You do not only end up like May — shipwrecked, her political capital spent; you end up like Williamson threatening to dispatch non-existent aircraft carrier groups to the South China Sea, celebrating your own “lethality” even as you fail to punch your way out of a paper bag.

For May's inner team, like the Soviet generals at Stalingrad, the HQ is now the frontline, and the strategy amounts to not retreating into the river. Unlike Stalingrad, they have no reserves ready to envelop the enemy — and indeed, they have too many enemies to cope with.

This is why I am utterly unmoved by the fact that the Tories remain, for now, at around 40 per cent in the polls. Politics is easy when every newspaper supports you and is prepared to peddle lies on your behalf; when the broadcast media is full of chums who think and speak like you; when, in addition to that, you have the civil service holding your hand and an ever-present cadre from the dark-money think-tanks to recycle your claims to credibility on breakfast-time TV.

A general election would level all that, and it is pretty obvious why May and her fragmented administration would go out of their way to avoid one. Because their ultimate enemy is history. The economic system they’ve learned to operate no longer delivers, even for the small business owners, pensioners and professional classes that form Toryism’s grassroots. Consent for the present system is evaporating. Culturally, the Conservative Party feels as distant from modern Britain as it did in the early 1960s, when the David Frost and Paul Foot generation tore them to shreds.

Leon Trotsky once said that, when the forces of history are with you, you can almost do nothing wrong: it becomes hard to lose, even when you’re incompetent. Conversely, when history is against you, even technical brilliance counts for nothing. Failure to realise this was the consistent reason why dictators and monarchs fell — but the Tory party always had good antennae for the forces of destiny. It survived the mass enfranchisement of the working class, the rise of monopoly capitalism, the triumph of Keynesian economic management techniques and the 1960s revolution in social attitudes by embracing change. This time around it seems incapable of understanding that the world has turned.

The obvious way out — both for the good of Britain and for the Tories themselves – would be to ditch May, reconfigure the Brexit offer around a Norway-style deal, and declare an end to austerity, pledging to rebuild the country’s infrastructure and mend the social divides using the medicinal powers of the magic money tree.

But she cannot bring herself to do it. It would split the Tory party and, at any subsequent election, the angry mob of English nationalists who’ve swarmed into and around the Tories would either stay at home or vote for a new, rival hard Brexit formation. That would hand the progressive majority of the British electorate something it has not had since the 1960s: power with a radically different project to that of the right (Tony Blair’s was a radically similar project to the right’s).

Labour, by contrast, though routinely vilified as hopeless, has in fact proved resilient and adaptive in this crisis. Its Brexit team, led by Keir Starmer, went into the crucial day on Tuesday confident in their own legal judgements about May’s last-minute codicil in a way that was totally absent from the opposite side.

Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, who were once despised by the centrist nabobs of People’s Vote campaign, are now secretly respected by them. Corbyn’s strategy has been to pursue the only rational solution at every stage. He forced the meaningful vote; he forced the transition arrangements; he forced the Tories back over one red line after another; he will force no deal off the table and — simply by grinding the Tories to pieces — he will force them to ditch May. With a few dishonourable exceptions, the Parliamentary Labour Party have — with not much credit — played the grinding game loyally.

To me, this shows, despite the bitter arguments within Labourism, that it is a more effective and adaptive force than the Tories. All parts of it understand the need for radical change and it is a mass movement whose enthusiasm survives wave after wave of smears and slanders.

The next steps are, I’m afraid, to continue grinding. The critical task is to prevent May using any short delay to Article 50 to stage a third game of brinkmanship. Parliament must take control. Unlike the zealots of the People’s Vote movement, I don’t want to kill the Norway option. If that is what emerges, it is the most sensible way to mitigate the concerns of Brexit voters over migration and sovereignty while retaining a close strategic relationship to Europe.

But Norway-plus is so unlike what the xenophobic right fought for that it provides an even greater rationale for a second referendum to ratify it. If you would rather remain and reform the EU, giving parliament a shot at a negotiated soft Brexit and putting it to the people is the only remaining route to that. 

Paul Mason is a New Statesman contributing writer, author and film-maker. As economics editor at Newsnight, then Channel 4 News, he covered the global financial crisis, the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement and the Gaza war. His latest book is Clear Bright Future: A radical defence of the human being.