The two televised debates between the contenders for the Conservative leadership served at least one useful purpose to those of us who have no role in the process. They showed how divided the country is and how different sections of the public live in different and irreconcilable worlds.
Brexit is the problem.The contenders hunted for a reasonable centre-ground on other issues. They deplored the failings of public services after years of cutbacks; they thought tackling climate change should be a top priority; they celebrated multiculturalism. None of these are a given amongst pro-Brexit hardliners. The Brexit Party’s Nigel Farage happily focuses on tax rather than services, says climate change is a hoax and deplores multiculturalism, drawing inspiration from Donald Trump. There is polling evidence that such a combination of views is commonplace amongst Conservative Brexiteers.
But this moderation amongst the leadership contenders counts for very little. They are overwhelmed by Brexit and the candidates take one thing as a given: Brexit must be achieved by 31 October (or perhaps a shade later) at virtually any cost. Arguments about whether or not this is a good idea are redundant, because, they agree, public confidence in politics and democracy would collapse otherwise. Implementing the letter of a three-year old referendum decision is a decisive test for democracy in this view, otherwise the liberal elite will have succeeded in thwarting the will of the people. The only argument is over attitudes to a no-deal Brexit, and even there only Rory Stewart (now eliminated) suggested this should be ruled out, as much because parliament is against it as that it is a bad idea in itself. All other candidates agreed that a no-deal Brexit was a bad thing, but said that the prospect of delaying Brexit was even worse. They tried to reconcile this awkward stance by saying that it was crucial for the country’s negotiating position to present a credible threat of no-deal, as if negotiating a complex and long-term political relationship was like Tesco trying beat down its suppliers on the price of cheese.
To people like me, who may now be in the majority of the country as a whole, this is utter lunacy. We should do Brexit because it is good for the country not solely because of a three-year old referendum. And just what is so undemocratic about going back to the country in a further referendum if parliament cannot agree on a deal? And yet that last option is so beyond the pale amongst the leadership candidates that it wasn’t even discussed. And as for keeping no-deal “on the table”, it looks like an effort in pointless self-harm that will weaken the county’s negotiating position in the long-term yet further.
And yet the leadership candidates are not stuck in a Westminster bubble. It is the reverse: they know full-well that this is how the party’s core supporters feel – and that is why they deserted en masse to The Brexit Party (TBP). If the new Conservative leader does not take this tough line on Brexit, the party could very well melt down. The leadership contest must be fought in the world-view of the hard Brexiteers, with the rest of us acting as helpless spectators.
But that is climbing out of the fire and into the frying pan. The main reason that the Conservatives did so badly in the European elections was defections to TBP. But there was another reason: many others defected to the Liberal Democrats. I know quite a few of them. These people do not inhabit the world of the hard-Brexiteer. To win the next general election, the Conservatives will somehow need to get these people back. The contenders left some clue as how they hoped achieve this. The first was they want to avoid a general election for as long as possible. They all agreed on that, notwithstanding the government’s lack of a majority, and their protestations about democracy. Second they hope that by achieving Brexit they can move on, and change the subject to stopping Jeremy Corbyn.
That could work, but it depends on passing something that looks very like Theresa May’s deal, allowing departure on 31 October, or even before. This will soften the Brexit transition, and, crucially, make the argument over a further referendum redundant. Brexit will still be an issue, as the future trading relationship has to be negotiated, but on a level that makes it much easier to push down the political agenda, though there is a danger that the end of the transition period gets tangled up with the next general election.
But it is much harder to see this working with a no-deal. Such an event would rank alongside Black Monday in 1992, when Britain dropped out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism, destroying John Major’s newly reelected government’s credibility – a position from the Conservatives were unable to recover for nearly two decades. Furthermore it would create a series of future crises that would mean that the government would be unable to control the agenda. The sunny post-Brexit uplands, that leadership contender Michael Gove hopes for, will be very hard to usher in in time.
Can a new Prime Minister succeed where Mrs May failed three times? There is hope. Labour MPs, especially those in heavily Leave-voting areas, are getting twitchy and discipline may be starting to break down, to judge by Labour’s failed attempt to move against a no-deal last week. The EU may be able to offer a token something to cover the retreat. Some of the contenders correctly understand that the key will be the Irish Republic’s government, as a no-deal would create huge problems there. English Tory understanding of Irish politics is woeful, but something may be achieved.
Meanwhile the non-Brexit supporting half of the country will have to endure some further weeks of public debate amongst Conservatives conducted in a world that looks completely unreal to them. In due course there will surely be an anti-Brexit backlash, for which Conservatives will be utterly unready.