James Frayne: Tories are playing with fire if they backslide on Brexit
The electorate don't take kindly to a party that reneges on a promise, just ask Nick Clegg
It’s extraordinary that, a year on, the public are still committed to leaving the EU. Since last June, the media climate has been brutally hostile towards leaving: we’ve heard endless confident predictions of economic damage; warnings about the prospect of the break-up of the UK; and even the possibility of a return to confrontation in Northern Ireland. There’s been audible background noise that Britain has turned its back on diversity and the modern world.
Traffic has been almost entirely one way: Theresa May and her Cabinet have steadfastly refused to develop an optimistic vision for life outside the EU, and they have barely defended their decision to press ahead with Brexit. And yet the latest YouGov poll on the issue – conducted over 10/11 July – showed people think it was right to vote leave by 45-43% (with the rest saying they don’t know). Yes, the lead is narrow, but the commitment of those that voted leave is incredible.
This has strong implications for all the parties, but particularly the Conservatives. There are clearly some within the party looking to pursue a so-called “softer-Brexit”. While this is undefined, it looks to retain some form of access to the Single Market and to exit with a long transition period. While the Prime Minister’s spokespeople make clear when asked that Britain is definitely leaving the Single Market, there is undoubtedly a sense developing that leaving might not look quite like leaving. The reality might be different; that’s the perception.
In allowing the sense slowly to develop that Brexit might be delayed or diluted, the Conservatives are playing with electoral fire: if it looks like they’re going back on Brexit in any way they’ll face an appalling backlash from these people that have kept the faith.
As Nick Clegg would acknowledge, there’s nothing worse in politics than for people to think you’ve betrayed them. The Lib Dems’ accommodation with the Conservatives on tuition fees after they entered Government in 2010 completely shredded their reputation for honesty - and they’ve never truly recovered.
The country is clearly divided on the issue of Brexit and the Conservatives naturally want to appeal to those people that voted remain. Furthermore, it’s also understandable that the party would want to respond to the wave of negative press associated with leaving - and indeed the noise that hardcore remainers are making online and in the occasional demonstration.
But in defying remain voters by pressing ahead with a hard Brexit, the Conservatives aren’t betraying them: they’re simply following a policy programme that some people disagree with, even if they disagree with it profoundly. If, on the other hand, the Conservatives appear to pursue a policy of “leaving without leaving” then they will be legitimately accused of treachery by those that voted to leave.
Of course, the Conservatives can’t forget those that voted remain. But they’re going to have to find other ways of appealing to these voters – people who are generally more affluent, more educated and Southern. They can’t accommodate them on the issue of Europe.
In a recent article, the Financial Times’ Gideon Rachman argued that opinion might shift against Brexit if and when things went badly and that there should be another referendum on the deal – presumably with a view to securing a vote for remain. He argued that politicians should not be put off doing the right thing in policy terms by the prospect of unrest by hardcore leave voters.
But the threat of unrest from a minority should not be the Government’s primary concern: far more concerning for the Conservatives is the prospect of being seen as untrustworthy by a massive chunk of the electorate. The Lib Dems took a battering for apparent duplicity on an issue irrelevant to most people. On an issue like Europe / immigration, the backlash would be immense. Those that say UKIP is dead are wrong: they will slowly rise again if the Government doesn’t reduce immigration sharply and they’ll surge if people think leaving the EU is in doubt.
A year ago, the Conservative Party was a party largely committed to remain. But that’s in the past: the party decided to commit to Brexit and to define itself against other parties as the only party that could deliver it safely. Whether senior Conservatives like it or not, in the minds of the public they’ve made their choice: they’re the Brexit party. They have to stick with it and deliver hard Brexit or they’re finished.