The Conservatives are in power and in disarray. They possess a will to power but no common view on what to do with it. For now the bulk of the party is intent on pursuing Brexit to its bitter conclusion. But what then? What indeed. For the Conservative coalition has been turned upside down.
Charles gave a crisp summary a couple of weeks ago of the three Conservative tribes. All three have abandoned their usual stances in the face of the referendum result. The Ultras, who oppose change, have – enthusiastically – sought radical upheaval in order to perfect Brexit. The Radicals, who seek a global role for Britain and for free trade, have – with varying degrees of enthusiasm – turned their back on Britain’s most profound international and trading endeavour: some regret this and some are persuading themselves that new roles will be found. The Paternalists, who seek compromise in pursuit of social stability, have found themselves in the midst of the biggest social upheaval for a generation and firmly pressing one side of a binary decision. Everything has been subordinated to Brexit.
The Conservatives are guilty of double think. On the one hand, they think that Brexit is so important that every previous belief and credo must be jettisoned to the extent that it gets in the way of leaving the EU. On the other hand, they think that once Britain has left the EU normal service will be resumed, since the public will speedily move on to every day topics.
This looks hopelessly optimistic. Once Britain has left the EU, Leavers will pocket the policy success and move on, probably to complain about why immigration isn’t coming down (whether or not it actually is). Meanwhile, committed Remain supporters are unlikely to forgive or forget for the foreseeable future. Those who implemented Brexit are not going to get a hearing from them this year, next year or in all likelihood in 15 years time unless they have shown through the means of implementation that they have sought to be inclusive. The Conservatives have not sought to be inclusive.
That by itself is not fatal to the Conservatives’ chances. While many of those committed Remain voters would in previous eras have been natural Conservative voters, this portion of the electorate is probably the one third who a recent opinion poll found would support joining the euro. There is still another two thirds to go after and new coalitions can be built.
The Conservatives have in practice been building an electoral coalition around the Leave coalition, apparently without particular thought to the long term consequences of this. It’s all very well being the party of the old, the uneducated, the insular and the obsessed, but that rubs off on your image. Despite the fact that Labour is headed up by the most leftwing and inexperienced leadership in living memory, the Conservatives now have only a slender lead on economic competence over Labour: Philip Hammond, the epitome of a stolid Conservative chancellor, had only a 9% lead for best Chancellor in a recent opinion poll over John McDonnell, his Mao-brandishing opponent. They look reactionary, uncaring and obsessed. Labour have many defects of their own but by staying above the fray on Brexit they have avoided the taint of weirdness that the Conservatives are volunteering for in the eyes of many voters.
There is more than another year of this to go. And that timescale will be met only on the basis that everything goes quite well from here, which is itself an assumption so mini-heroic that it is awaiting its own confectionery tin.
The Conservatives can’t afford to wait that long. If they want to retain power in the short, medium and long term, they need to rediscover a sense of purpose that does not involve Brexit. Indeed, they need to determine what a good Brexit would look like. That means that they need to ask themselves a question which they have not allowed themselves to ask since the referendum: is there anything more important than leaving the EU?
The answer for most normal people to this question is an emphatic yes. Many Conservatives will scratch their heads at the concept. But if you are going to be telling the general public that policies on the economy, housing, education or the NHS are going to be determined by the Brexit settlement, a lot of voters are going to think that you’ve got the cart before the horse.
Conservatives seem to be putting those questions on hold until Brexit is out of the way. The voters won’t. And if the Conservatives don’t, voters will take a lot of persuading that the Conservatives have the right priorities for the country.
What should the Conservatives be focusing on? In the past they have succeeded when they have persuaded a plurality of voters that they are best placed to grow the economy in a manner that fairly rewards the aspirations of the ordinary voter. That looks like a good place to start. The Conservatives’ big problem at present is that if they put Brexit ahead of this, the public won’t be persuaded. Indeed, for many working voters the Conservatives’ fixation with Brexit is symbolic of their warped priorities and their inability to tackle the problems in the housing market, low pay growth, poor productivity and out-of-date infrastructure. So it’s time for the Conservatives to start talking about what they think is more important than Brexit.