James Frayne: Tory eurosceptics now fall into three tribes

Written by James Frayne on 16 August 2016 in Opinion

The likes of Boris Johnson and Liam Fox are in the ascendancy. But for how long?

Traditionally, Tory eurosceptics in Westminster have been treated as unsophisticated, old-fashioned eccentrics. But the leave vote has catapulted them into positions of power and influence. Civil servants, businesses and commentators are now scrambling to work out who these eurosceptics are, what they believe and what they’ll do.

They should think of the most active Tory eurosceptics as being divided into essentially three groups: (a) Revolutionary Modernisers; (b) Maastricht Veterans and associates; and (c) Party Power Players.

The Revolutionary Modernisers are the smallest group. They include people like Steve Hilton, David Cameron’s former strategy chief, former Tory MP Douglas Carswell, and Vote Leave’s campaign director Dominic Cummings. They aren’t traditional “Tories”: they don’t revere the party or state institutions for their own sake; and they don’t obsess about immigration or identity.

Rather, they are optimistic modernists that believe a mixture of lightly-regulated markets and decentralisation will encourage a creative, enterprising Britain with global interests. Their contempt for the EU largely derives from their belief that it is old-fashioned, corporatist and failing. (Michael Gove shares their revolutionary approach, but has more Tory inclinations.)

Maastrict Veterans and associates are the biggest group. They obviously include politicians like Iain Duncan Smith, Bernard Jenkin and Bill Cash, who clashed with John Major’s government over the Maastricht Treaty. But they also include others who joined the eurosceptic movement in the aftermath of this battle in the 1990s and early 2000s – which many did.

For example, international development secretary Priti Patel was a press officer for the Referendum Party at the 1997 election – created in response to the Tory Government’s signing of the Maastricht Treaty. Zac Goldsmith’s father created this party and Zac has been a long-term eurosceptic. Andrea Leadsom effectively became the figurehead for this group during the leadership campaign, although she actually fits more into the Party Power Players group.

Rebels aren’t clubbable and nor is this group. They’re not a movement. (Priti Patel was no supporter of Andrea Leadsom). However, they share the same view that the EU is unaccountable, remote and can’t work. They tend to be conservatives in the genuine sense of the term - sceptical of grand political plans and revolutionary change. This should not be mistaken for a lack of zeal. They are the noisiest eurosceptics and will continue to be so.  

The Party Power Players include the three leading Brexiteers in Government: foreign secretary Boris Johnson; international trade secretary Liam Fox; and Brexit secretary David Davis. Calling them “machine politicians” would be too much, but they are party politicians who have (with the odd blip) served loyally. While eurosceptic, they haven’t self-defined as “eurosceptics first” like others have.

The Party Power Players are in the ascendancy. Being the politicians they are, they’re likely to come up with relatively conventional policy ideas, working within the realms of what the Prime Minister and their civil servants think are realistic. Temperamentally, they won’t be looking to tear the system up. They will take the negotiation process seriously – with give and take expected and welcomed.

In policy terms, that probably means seeking a deal with the EU as close as possible to what went before – maybe even staying within part of the single market – and with new bilateral deals with as many friendly countries as possible, beginning with the most obvious ones like Canada and Australia. It seems highly unlikely they’ll propose new trading blocs or the remaking of global institutions.

The big question surrounding the Party Power Players is whether their likely modest proposals and patient negotiating will be enough to satisfy the Maastricht Veterans and associates. You have to doubt that; these Veterans have spent much of their careers campaigning against the EU and they will have a high bar for what they consider an acceptable settlement with the EU. There are already murmurings from some concerned eurosceptics that things need to move more quickly.

In such circumstances, these Veterans will be all over Theresa May – demanding she acts herself to put pressure on Davis, Fox and Johnson to act both differently and more quickly. Just as in the past, Europe will become a running sore for the prime minister. Life will be like it ever was: with a Tory leader having to decide how much ground to give to eurosceptics.

If this does happen – and chaos reigns – many eurosceptics will be looking for more radical ideas for a “hard” Brexit. At this point, there will be a demand for the ideas and certainty of the Revolutionaries. (The Maastricht Veterans aren’t ideas people, after all). When it looked like the pro-leave campaign was never going to get going back in 2015, the Revolutionaries stepped in. They have provided ideas and momentum to the eurosceptic world on and off since the late 1990s.

Theresa May obviously campaigned for remain and she is not a long-term eurosceptic. But to avoid this mess she will need to ensure that her senior cabinet colleagues come up with policy proposals that are palatable to the Maastricht Veterans and associates. If not, she will end up hearing from the Revolutionaries.

History never repeats itself exactly in politics, but in the world of euroscepticism it tends to come pretty close.



Picture by: Ben Birchall/PA Wire/Press Association Images


About the author

James Frayne is director of the communications agency Public First and author of Meet the People, the go-to guide to consumer and citizen mobilisation.

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