The Tories have become the Brexit party
Shedding its broad centre-right traditions, the party now represents English nationalism
People wave from the top of the Brexit party bus as it goes down Middleton Street in Llandrindod Wells, where the it is making it’s way around the constituency during the Brecon and Radnorshire by-election which was called following the sacking Tory MP Chris Davies of last month after a recall petition. Ben Birchall/PA Wire
Britain’s Brexiters set a simple rule to fight the 2016 referendum. Disdain facts, disregard truth and appeal instead to visceral emotion. Cultural insecurities and grievances did indeed trump economics. Invited to strike a blow against metropolitan elites, to throw rocks at experts and to close the door on immigration, a small majority of those who voted backed Brexit.
Boris Johnson, who led the Leave campaign, has been setting much the same course in preparing for a general election. Every scrap of solid evidence and independent analysis says a disorderly Brexit would have a calamitous impact on the economy and living standards. The vast proportion of businesses report a risk to investment and jobs. The pound is sinking fast. Michael Gove publicly scorned experts during the referendum campaign. Now he has taken charge of preparations for Britain to crash out of the EU on October 31.
“Do or die” is how the prime minister puts it. Instead of outflanking Nigel Farage’s Brexit party, the Conservatives have become the Brexit party. Mr Johnson has purged the government of non-believers. The token handful of One Nation Tories permitted to stay in post have been obliged to sign an oath of fealty to a no-deal Brexit. Senior officials who present ministers with inconvenient facts risk being accused of attempted sabotage.
Brexit has rubbed out politics’ familiar left-right dividing line. Mr Johnson has thrown overboard fiscal conservatism in favour of state largesse for the Brexit-backing working classes. Contradictions such as those between big tax cuts and boundless public spending do not disturb identity politics.
This is not to say that Mr Johnson has a firm date in mind for polling day. Assuming that politicians arrive in office possessed of some grand design is a common mistake. In Mr Johnson’s case, the presumption should perhaps be the opposite. He has never been guided by principle or impressed by strategy. The present blizzard of sunny optimism, spending pledges, and the brusque ultimatum to the EU27, might be aimed at creating a new dynamic in the negotiations with Brussels.
If so, it has badly backfired. European leaders are unimpressed. Plainly, the EU had been prepared to offer some concessions on the thorny question of the Irish border. Until last week there had been chatter in Brussels about applying pressure on Leo Varadkar, the Irish prime minister, to accept a face-saving fudge. Mr Johnson’s maximalist position has put an end to that.
The prime minister is asking Germany’s Angela Merkel and France’s Emmanuel Macron to jeopardise the Good Friday peace agreement by tearing up the guarantee in the draft Brexit accord to maintain an open Irish Border. He cannot be surprised that they do not share his recklessness.
Mr Johnson may think he can yet postpone an election by persuading the House of Commons to back a cliff-edge Brexit. Having rid the cabinet of fifth-columnists, he may calculate he can face down the Remainers on the Tory backbenches. Would even ardent Tory Europhiles really risk putting Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn in Number 10? By promising to pump public money into Brexit-supporting Labour seats, Mr Johnson is also bidding for the votes of a sizeable group of opposition MPs.
Maybe. But, whatever his hopes, most roads point towards a general election - a poll that he cannot win without disarming Mr Farage. Hence the decisive shift to the right. By shedding its traditional identity as a broad coalition across the centre-right, the Tories become the Brexit, or more precisely, the English nationalist party.
The past few days have seen Mr Johnson wrap himself in the UK flag. In truth, he is uninterested in the smaller nations of the UK. He has never been popular in Scotland and will not have been surprised at the public abuse that greeted his visit to Edinburgh. Ruth Davidson, leader of the Scottish Tories, has told Mr Johnson that a no-deal Brexit would see the party badly damaged in a general election.
Scotland’s first minister and leader of the Scottish Nationalist party, Nicola Sturgeon, could not have wished for a better enemy in her campaign for independence. Mr Johnson seems equally unmoved by the threat of a no-deal Brexit to the Conservatives in Wales or by the boost it could give to the case for the reunification of Ireland. All the signs are that the prime minister is ready to gamble the UK union. Brexit has become the only thing that matters.
Whether the numbers would add up in a Commons vote is another question. No one knows how many disaffected Labour supporters Mr Johnson can sweep up eventually into his great patriotic crusade; or, for that matter, how many Tory seats will be lost to the Liberal Democrats in southern England as the party’s moderate voters defect.
The irony is that the prime minister’s most valuable card is Mr Corbyn - an opposition leader so possessed by the warped ideology of the far-left and by his own anti-European prejudices as to repel large swaths of voters who would otherwise count themselves part of the progressive centre-left.
Not so long ago, the complaint most often heard in Britain was that Brexit had paralysed parliament. The damage, though, runs much deeper. The argument about Europe has shredded the very fabric of British politics and may yet destroy the United Kingdom itself.
Philip Stephens is a Financial Times columnist
Financial Times Service