Brexit delay is the best thing that could happen to the Tories
A ‘cashmere’ Brexit would strengthen the Conservative Party’s rule in coming years
Pro- and anti-Brexit activists outside the Houses of Parliament in London. Photograph: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg
And so the frustration in Brussels grows. Following Wednesday’s emergency European Council summit Brexit is again postponed. Journalists are already having a field day with their Halloween horror headlines. There is no confidence in the EU that Theresa May can deliver any sort of agreement that will gain a Westminster majority. The European Parliament is aghast at the prospect of a significant proportion of British MEPs causing havoc in Brussels after the forthcoming May elections.
Yet, although this delay is portrayed as another failure of the Conservative Party government, the opposite is true. Rather than cause a British (or English) political revolution, a delayed Brexit will actually solidify existing political structures. Brexit – soft, but real – will strengthen Tory rule in the coming years. Extended Tory hegemony is inevitable.
As the Fabian Society has pointed out, the British Labour Party is becoming increasingly concentrated in major cities with higher levels of ethnic diversity and young adults. But, even more importantly, in areas most commonly defined as “working class” there has been a noticeable swing to the Conservatives since 2005.
Although, the current “first past the post” British voting system mitigates against dramatic upheaval, the longer-term implications are clear. Limited potential for future electoral gains for the Labour Party in urban areas (for example, Labour already holds 23 out of 27 seats in Greater Manchester) coupled with the potential for the Conservatives to gain traction, if not seats at first, in staunchly Labour, but Brexit supporting areas.
This isn’t science fiction, or even political fantasy. It’s the new politics of the vulnerable, disconnected masses.
A Tory party – with an engaging and coherent leader (surely there must be one) – should be able to act as an umbrella for all Brexit supporters from the hard right to the more malleable centre regardless of the short-term back-stabbing and chaos.
Will Jacob Rees-Mogg and his European Research Group (ERG) friends really prefer the principled isolation of Westminster to the Conservative high table? The Tories are too fond of power for that. In fact, the composition of the “Independent Group” in Westminster shows that while the Tories may splinter, Labour might lose a whole branch.
For the Conservatives today the priority should be to deliver a cashmere Brexit
The absence of a co-ordinated Remainer group in the Conservatives also renders their overall strategic position relatively clear. Hard Brexit or soft Brexit is up for discussion, but Brexit it will be.
Those who will leave the Tories over Europe have, in fact, already left. Closet Remainers, such as Phillip Hammond, will never jeopardise party unity for Europe. They simply don’t care enough about Brussels to make that leap.
Moderate, pro-European Tories – such as Anna Soubry and Nick Boles – have already been written out of Conservative Party history. Kenneth Clarke stands as a noble and proud throwback to a different age, and a different Tory party.
Finally, any sort of Brexit – be it May’s deal or anything softer – will allow the Tories to make a coherent election pitch lifted straight from Labour Party policy: we delivered Brexit but simultaneously protected jobs and trade in the long run.
This isn’t really coherent policy or even good for Britain, but its clever politics and would make the most of May’s dreadful period in charge. This approach will also allow the Ulster unionists to sing loudly of the United Kingdom’s territorial integrity, while maintaining British commitments to maintaining an open Border in Ireland. It’s a solution with a little bit of something for everybody.
Of course, in a political context, the fissures of Brexit aren’t that unique. The Suez Crisis of 1955/56 was marked by Conservative Party splits (including a “Suez Group” whose emotionally charged nationalism echoes clearly in today’s ERG), divided families and ultimately caused the fall of a Tory prime minister. But Suez, driven by an almost visceral need to sustain a global role, ultimately failed because of economic realities and American pressure.
However, Suez is more important because it shows a pathway forward for the Conservatives. Suez did not spell electoral disaster for the Tory party or for the British economy. Under Harold Macmillan (ironically one of the staunchest initial backers of military action in Suez) the Conservative Party successfully retained power in 1959 with a larger majority.
Increasing middle-class mobility, economic growth and a recast Anglo-American alliance (albeit with Britain as very much the junior partner) sustained a relatively harmonious political landscape for the Tories up to the early 1960s.
For the Conservatives today the priority should be to deliver a cashmere Brexit; soft to the touch but warm enough to repel the chill from the political extremes.
This is not the best solution for Britain, nor for Europe. But Brussels has resigned itself to Britain leaving. For us who support the wider European integration project, there can (and should be) no turning back.
Eoin Drea is a senior researcher at the Wilfried Martens Centre, the official think tank of the European People’s Party which includes Fine Gael. His latest paper – The Empire Strikes Back: Brexit, History and the Decline of Global Britain – has just been published.