For Tory realists, a Brexit fantasy is their only hope

By on 20/06/2019
Promising a red, white and blue Brexit: Tory MPs believe that only Boris Johnson can get the party out of its electoral hole (Image courtesy: Andrew Parsons/i-Images).

Having spent three years pursuing their promised Brexit, the Tories are set to double down – electing a leader they know is bound to fail. But as Matt Ross explains, there is method in their madness: Boris Johnson represents their best chance of clinging on to power

We’ve all seen films in which the hero, faced with seemingly inescapable destruction, devises an outlandish plan – proclaiming: “It’s a million to one chance, but it might just work!”

In films, of course, that risk always comes good. In real life, not so much. Yet this is, in a nutshell, the thinking driving the selection of the UK’s next prime minister.

Wednesday saw the elimination from the Tory leadership contest of Rory Stewart: the only one of the contenders who challenged the idea that former PM Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement can be renegotiated by November, and ruled out a ‘no deal’ exit from the EU. Stewart won the support of just 27 of his fellow MPs, while Boris Johnson – the runaway favourite – secured 143 votes.

Yet there is zero chance of May’s successor renegotiating her deal by 31 October, when the extension period granted by the EU in March expires. Not only have the European Commission and key national leaders repeatedly said that the WA isn’t up for renegotiation, but the new members of the European Parliament and European Commission don’t take their posts until 1 November: until then, the EU can neither set a new negotiating mandate nor field a team.

And the new prime minister will lack the mandate – and, probably, the ability – to leave the EU without a deal. Voters in the 2016 EU referendum weren’t backing a no deal exit. Quite the opposite: every Brexiteer argued that a Leave vote would enable Britain to secure a more advantageous relationship with the EU. The House of Commons has made clear its opposition to no deal, and would probably find a way to block a disorderly exit. And even if the threat was credible, it would provide little leverage with the EU – for a no deal exit would harm the UK far more than any other Member state.

So the UK’s next prime minister will enter Downing Street committed to a doomed negotiation, and wielding a hollow threat to crash the country’s own economy. It is a bizarre position for the country to find itself in, and yet it has a kind of inevitability about it. History, repeating itself, has skipped straight to farce.

For when Theresa May became PM in the summer of 2016, she too did so by promising the undeliverable: an exit that would deliver all the Brexiteers’ promises, without hurting Britain’s people or economy.

Internal contradictions

Then the process of negotiations, which required her to define a specific exit route (she never even began the task of specifying a landing place), laid bare the contradictions within the Brexiteer case and the costs to business. And no future Tory leader will be able to resolve those contradictions, which lie at the very heart of the case for Brexit.

During the 2016 referendum campaign Leavers argued that, eager to retain unfettered access to UK markets, the EU would bend its own rules – permitting the continued free movement of goods with the Continent, whilst allowing the UK to control immigration, leave the purview of EU regulators and the European Court of Justice, and develop an independent trade policy.

These people either did not understand, or wilfully chose to ignore, the very concept of a border. For any body that manages a single tariffs regime, oversees competition law, monitors safety standards, and carries out all the other tasks required to administer a single economic area must, by definition, have a boundary. And by repatriating the powers required to deliver the Brexiteers’ goals, any exit deal would put the UK outside the EU’s economic borders – inevitably creating friction in the movement of goods across the new demarcation line erected between jurisdictions. How could the UK adopt a different tariffs schedule from the EU, for example, without customs officers on both sides imposing those tariffs as goods cross the border? This is a truth so obvious that it should be inarguable; but the Tory party’s hard Leavers, refusing to discard their dream of a perfect Brexit, have never recognised it.

Beyond the Pale

It was their determined refusal to engage with reality that wrecked May’s deal. For the hard Brexit she designed in order to deliver the Brexiteers’ key goals – “control of our borders, our money and our laws,” as she put it – inevitably created a seam on the island of Ireland, in the shape of an economic border between the Single Market and the UK.

And the ‘backstop’ agreed to smooth over this fissure – respecting the requirements of the Good Friday Agreement, which ended 30 years of inter-communal conflict – had two consequences. It created a fracture within the UK, presenting a new regulatory border between Britain and Northern Ireland. And in order to minimise that fracture, it pledged to keep the whole of the UK in the Customs Union until ways could be found to allow British trade policy to diverge from the EU’s without creating a hard border in Ireland; this dramatically restricts the potential for the UK to sign new trade deals into someone invents the Brexiteers’ mysterious ‘technological solutions’.

May had done her best to overcome the existential tensions between the Brexiteers’ promises – but the true believers refused to accept the compromises required to translate their vision into an exit deal, repeatedly voting down the Withdrawal Agreement until May herself had to quit. And meanwhile, the PM’s repeated claims that “no deal is better than a bad deal” – while impossible to square with her actions – had brought the idea of leaving without a deal into the political mainstream.

Rory Stewart: Honesty might be the best policy, but Tory MPs have rejected it as an electoral strategy (Image courtesy: Foreign & Commonwealth Office/flickr).

Blame the messenger

Unwilling to recognise the fundamental flaws in their glorious dream, Tory Brexiteers had to find another explanation for May’s failure to satisfy their demands. So they now argue that May – the leader of their own party, chosen by them specifically for the task, and given three years to realise their goals – missed the opportunity before her: that the right leader could have brought home the perfect Brexit.

The EU, they argue, would have given more ground if only May had shown her willingness to go through with a no deal exit; if only she had been a true believer. The struggle over the mantle of ideological purity among the Tory leadership contenders has now become so fierce that even Michael Gove – the former co-chair of the Vote Leave campaign – had his Brexiteer credentials questioned by Johnson supporters, on the basis that he voted for May’s deal as a member of her Cabinet. And the Conservative Party membership – which will choose the PM from a final shortlist of two – is now so committed to the Brexit project that a majority say they’d rather see the UK dismantled, “significant” economic damage, and even the destruction of their own party than allow the UK to remain in the EU.

So those vying to replace May know that two things are true: they cannot deliver their Brexit promises; and they cannot become PM without making them. Observing May’s premiership, they’ve drawn the conclusion that in today’s Tory party, it is the pursuit of the possible that destroys political careers.

Why realists vote for the unrealistic

And why have Tory MPs – most of whom voted Remain – eliminated the only honest candidate, opting for a leader whose promises are bound to collapse in the face of reality? Because whilst electing Johnson creates only the slimmest chance of rescuing the Tory party from its dire position – and dramatically raises the threat of no deal – every other route leads to electoral disaster. For Johnson and Tory backbenchers alike, the obvious economic and social risks of his approach are outweighed by the personal and political advantages.

For there is no way back from Brexit for the Tory party. Acknowledging that the Brexit dream cannot be delivered – that the Tories have spent three years dragging the country down a blind alley – would be an admission of vast incompetence. And even if a new leader could win their party round to a softer Brexit, that route is blocked by the populist phenomenon that is Nigel Farage.

Five years ago, the victory of Farage’s UK Independence Party in the 2014 European elections spooked then-PM David Cameron into offering an EU referendum, reclaiming Eurosceptic votes at the 2015 general election – but at the cost of a promise which ultimately led to the destruction of his premiership. And in May’s European elections Farage repeated his trick, securing 31% of the vote to the Tories’ pitiful 9%.

Tory MPs know that if they go into the next general election with Farage outflanking them on Brexit, they’ll be fatally squeezed between his new Brexit Party vehicle, the Remain parties, and Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour – catapulting them out of government. So if they want to hang onto power, their only option is to go forward – giving Farage what he wants, and thus neutralising him as a political threat (at least in the short term).

Past casualties: Brexit wrecked the premierships of David Cameron and Theresa May. It is hard to see how their successor can escape a similar fate (Image courtesy: Tiocfaidh ár lá 1916).

A way out of the dead end?

It’s far from obvious where that takes them. The EU won’t renegotiate by the end of October. Even if the UK was granted another extension, the EU wouldn’t grant further concessions without Britain also giving ground – leading to more Tory rebellions. The House of Commons is likely to block no deal. A general election could well hand government to Corbyn’s Labour. And permitting a ‘confirmatory referendum’ on any deal could well split the Tory party.

So all roads appear blocked. And hence the Tories’ enthusiasm for Boris Johnson – for the former foreign secretary has two big advantages over his rivals.

First, like Donald Trump, he seems able to reverse positions without suffering reputational harm; with Boris, mendacity is already priced in. As former chancellor Ken Clarke told the BBC this week: “None of them can deliver what they’re talking about,” but Johnson has a unique ability to wriggle unharmed out of his commitments. “Boris will decide what to do when he’s won,” he said. “Boris will forget what he said a fortnight ago.”

So Johnson is seen as the candidate with the best chance of extracting the party from the policy straitjacket into which it has strapped itself. While hard Brexiteers see him as the true believer they seek, Remainer Tories quietly hope that he could opt for a far closer relationship with the EU – addressing the Irish border problem, while winning enough Labour votes to compensate for lost Brexiteers.

Second, he has a charisma and a level of public recognition that would give them a chance of victory at a general election. Johnson has already proved his ability to win on Labour turf, twice being elected mayor of London. Labour leader Corbyn is widely unpopular, and his brand of humourless socialism would play badly against Johnson’s carefully-cultivated, jolly buffoonery.

What’s more, Corbyn’s refusal to oppose Brexit has left the Remainer vote hopelessly divided. But if Johnson were to wrap himself in the union jack and charge into battle, rallying ‘plucky little Britain’ behind his war against the ‘bureaucratic bullies’ of the EU, he’d clean up on the Leave side. So the Tories hope that Johnson’s star power would compensate for their lack of a good story to carry into the election; certainly, none of his rivals have anything to match it.

The same mistakes again

Take a step back, and it’s obvious that in choosing either Johnson or Jeremy Hunt – the only other remaining candidate, following Michael Gove’s elimination on Thursday – the Tories will be repeating two grave errors.

In 2014, under electoral pressure from Nigel Farage, former PM David Cameron gave him what he wanted – conceding an EU referendum. The result was a short-term electoral gain, followed by Cameron’s fall and three years of disinvestment, political turmoil and national division.

In 2016, they elected a leader who promised the undeliverable on Brexit. The result was a short-lived public popularity, followed by inevitable disillusion, internal strife, and Theresa May’s deposal.

It should be clear that when Tory leaders throw red meat to the Brexit right, they find that after that starter comes a main course of prime minister. If the Tory party doubles down, outflanking Farage with another pledge to pull off the perfect Brexit, the likely outcomes are failure in the short term, and further electoral damage further down the road – with a high chance of a painful no deal exit. Yet Tory MPs believe that every other way forward leads rapidly to the party’s fall from power.

For the Tory party, this million to one chance might just come off. For the rest of us, not so much.

About Matt Ross

Matt is a journalist and editor specialising in public services, policymaking, government and management. He was the editor of trade title Civil Service World from 2008 to 2014, serving an audience of senior UK officials; and the features editor of weekly news magazine Regeneration & Renewal between 2002 and 2008, covering urban regeneration, economic growth and community development. He has also been a motoring and travel journalist, and now combines his role as editorial director of Global Government Forum with writing for other publications including The Guardian and Planning magazine.

2 Comments

  1. 3handles

    21/06/2019 at

    Matt – Excellent analysis. Thank you

  2. Robert Park

    21/06/2019 at

    Why isn’t the Labor Party discussing a fundamental re-make of the EU Commission with progressive parties in Spain, Greece, Italy, (Portugal, Turkey,?),… etc. A reform that addresses immigration-related reparations in Africa, financial controls that deal with regional differences, labor rights in foreign trade, climate change.

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