In this opinion piece, Dr Stewart Tolley argues that the Conservatives need to heed lessons from history and remain a broad church that embraces moderate views rather than pandering to the extremes. The current approach of seeking compromise via an orderly Brexit that pleases no one is being rejected by both Eurosceptics and remainers alike. Unless the party takes the fight over Europe out of the party by holding another referendum it is likely to be torn apart.
Brexit Divisions will lead to the Demise of the Conservative Party
– by Stewart Tolley –
The last few months have seen a slew of defections from the Conservative party, three MPs including former minister Anna Soubry have moved over to the pro-European Change UK (as it is now known). John Major’s Health Secretary Stephen Dorrell and former MP Neil Carmichael will join a former Conservative MEP Richard Ashworth and Boris Johnson’s sister Rachel in standing for the new party in May. On the other side, along with high profile defectors like Anne Widdecombe, there are rumours that several Tory MPs may also be considering jumping ship to Nigel Farage’s new Brexit party. Another report shows that 40% of the party’s grass roots would consider voting for the anti-European party. These two new groups represent a viable home for anyone unhappy with the direction of the Conservative party.
The hollowing out of the Conservative party from both anti- and pro-EU wings should deeply worry the leadership; it highlights an existential crisis that it will find almost impossible to recover from. The only MPs remaining would be the loyalist drones and patsies who take their cue from the leadership and have probably never had an independent thought in their lives. This is not a happy thought for any right-minded Conservative.
In the end parties are strongest when they are a broad tent and appeal to a range of different voters.
Clearly the leadership are having sleepless nights over the Brexit party and assuaging the concerns over its own Eurosceptic wing would seem the natural thing to do. However, this focus has meant that May and her allies may be blind to a longer term threat, which actually comes from the moderate wing of the party. If they wish the Conservative party to be a viable force in the future they must not allow further moderates to leave and brand the party as one only appealing to demagogues, ideologues and right-wing fanatics.
Onward, the ‘ideas factory’ of the Conservative Party, commissioned a report which showed that only 14% of 18-24 year olds would consider voting Conservative, and only 8% if we just include women. According to the Generation Why report, the ‘tipping point’ for the age when someone is more likely to vote Conservative than Labour is now 51.
This is a shocking indictment of the current appeal ‘brand Conservative’ has among voters. It is not hard to see why, with social conservatives like Mark Francois and Peter Bone and free-market fundamentalists like Jon Redwood likely to put-off any sane, moderate or reasoned person. Shorn of the moderates the ideological balance would tip even more towards this group, which would see falling appeal across all groups, not just the young.
We actually have an idea of what a hard-right Conservative party, without the One Nation element, would look like in terms of policy. In 2013 a group of right-wing backbenchers – annoyed at the progressive programme of the coalition government – produced an ‘Alternative Queen’s Speech’ outlining 40 bills they would like to see made law.
A glance over these 40 bills should frighten any One Nation Conservative. They include provisions for reintroducing Capital Punishment, withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights, deterring immigrants, removing asylum seekers, brutalising the criminal justice system and trying to stop Gay Marriage through a divisive referendum. Another bill wanted to create a ‘Margaret Thatcher Day’ which although innocuous, doesn’t scream ‘open minded’ either, almost wilfully wanting to stir up division and resentment, and only supported by 13% according to a poll by Lord Ashcroft.
.@afneil on form today: currently asking @PeterBoneMP if it's '1913 or 2013' and why birching was missing from alternative Queen's Speech
— James Chapman (@jameschappers) June 23, 2013
Of course the biggest elephant in the room among all this is the issue of Europe. The above list of bills included several that were meant to help facilitate a Brexit in 2013. The 30th Bill actually suggested triggering article 50 without a referendum! This highlights that the hard-right claim to be the champions of democracy was always a hollow platitude, being happy to take the country out of the EU without consultation.
Polls now show a consistent majority of the population regrets the referendum outcome and so willfully becoming the party of Brexit is becoming an increasingly niche pursuit. Even among Conservative voters, only 43% think that holding the referendum was a good idea. Few are going to thank the party in the future, particularly when the uncomfortable trade-offs are realised.
Young people have always been overwhelmingly pro-remain and It does not matter how much you reform apprenticeships, housing or tax, once these voters are lost they are likely to be lost forever. Few are going to be energised by a free-trade deal with the Faeroe Islands when they feel their rights as European Union citizens are being stolen by fanatics in Westminster.
The only thing that can heal the party and the country is to have a people’s vote, giving the voters the right to change their minds, as individual MPs have changed theirs over the course of the last few years.
Of course, it is important to listen to all wings of the party, but it is from the centre that elections are won. There is a reason why the Conservatives did so badly in the elections of 2001 and 2005; they produced a programme more in keeping with the ‘Alternative Queen’s Speech’ rather than the open and tolerant approach of David Cameron.
Despite all his faults, Cameron understood that the party needed to stop ‘banging on about Europe’ in order to get elected. The party now bangs on about nothing else, and the only way we can get on to other topics is to kill-off Brexit for good, which can only happen at the ballot box. If the party fails to realise this many of us will follow Soubry, Carmichael and Dorrell to Change UK.
Dr Stewart Tolley is Academic Director at The Past, a new online History journal catering to an audience that enjoys long reads. He also serves as secretary of the Young Conservative Group For Europe and as a committee member of Young Conservatives for a People’s Vote.
He is writing in his personal capacity here and the views in this article do not necessarily reflect those of this campaign or any other organisations he is affiliated to.