Earlier this week, the President submitted a contribution to this blog in which he explained some concerns about the government’s handling of the past few days. They were the words of a man deprived for too long of alcoholic libations, exuding the sort of misery and pessimism to be expected by a mind engulfed by sobriety. Fortunately, though, I am not in Trumpland, so the prospect of a gin and tonic is never more than a few minutes away. Let me, then, pick up where the President left off by taking a gentle perambulation through the events of the past week in politics, albeit without the distraction of a brain preoccupied by an incessant yearning for beer.
In what will be defined as a pivotal week in the Brexit process, the Benn Bill, intended to sweep a no-deal departure from the table, was approved by the House of Commons, tying the Prime Minister’s hands in the negotiations. True to his ultimatum, Boris proceeded to remove the whip from Tory remainers who supported it, leaving the government now hopelessly impotent and dependent on the opposition to pass its business. With the Bill still to enter into force, Boris’ call for a snap election was handsomely rejected – Labour’s hypocrisy all too evident.
The situation we find ourselves in is unenviable: The Prime Minister has promised to leave the European Union, deal or no-deal, by October 31st, but is bound by law to seek yet another extension until an agreement is reached. Without a majority, none of the possible permutations (backstop removed, EFTA, Canada plus, Customs Union, Single Market, you name it) will appease the Tory leavers, remainers and Labour. Parliament, then, is in gridlock – like most of us, it wants a deal, but also rejects every possible deal on offer. Moreover, no option will command a majority until an election changes the arithmetic, yet the very election needed to resolve the logjam has been rejected too.
In other words, we have a government whose promises put it in contention with parliament, which is in a war with itself which it could resolve but does not want to. Simple, no?
Some of the blame for this omnishambles must lie with Theresa May. The weakness of her 2017 campaign obnubilated by twenty-point poll leads deluded us into believing a hundred-seat majority was possible and Brexit would be resolved by pummel driving the result of her negotiations with the Commission through the House. A couple dozen Tory rebels would prove inconsequential, Britain would be out, and her reputation enshrined next to that of Mrs. Thatcher as the strong leader who stood up to Juncker and triumphed gloriously.
To state the obvious, May’s election gamble backfired and the Conservative majority she inherited was decimated overnight – with it went any hope of passing an agreement in Westminster.
However, Boris has also misplayed his hand. Perhaps the greatest quality a Prime Minister can posses is the ability to understand their own domestic strength and orientate policy accordingly. Commanding majorities enable the PM to pursue ambitious, radical, even internally divisive ideas, unafraid of being defeated, whilst a minority government demands conciliation and cross-party initiatives. It seems odd, therefore, that in a powerless position Boris has moved Brexit policy towards the extreme and happily expelled dissenters at a time when every vote really does count.
The Prime Minister is also wrong to be pushing for a General Election. Admittedly, it is the only way to break the parliamentary deadlock (although only if an overwhelming majority is returned), but despite the projection of confidence, we all know that a pre-Brexit election would be disastrous for the Conservatives. We promised a Brexit referendum, oversaw that referendum and gave the guarantee that the result would be implemented – until it is, voters have no reason to entrust us and may never again if the red-line of Halloween turns out to be a bit pink.
In 2017, the assumption was made that the UKIP vote would migrate in our direction, solely due to the PM’s tough stance on Europe. It was wishful thinking and a career-defining cock-up. Now, we risk making the same mistake by assuming the Brexit Party vote would switch to Boris. Political scientists and analysists will all gather in chorus by saying two pro-Brexit parties in direct competition will split the vote and allow Labour in, yet as any economist will confess, the model is a rough guide to behaviour, not an infallible forecast – voters are irrational and unpredictable, so its madness to gamble with the nation’s future whilst blinded by theories which fail to map onto reality.
More worryingly, though, an Election fought over Brexit where we position ourselves as the ‘leave at all costs, as quickly as possible’ party undermines our very essence. The Conservative Party has never been and should never resemble a fringe pressure group that throws its arms around chaotically in a fit of lobbyism, threatening to rewrite the constitution and tear up convention with every passing inconvenience. It’s no coincidence that our broad-church party (that houses the Moggian social traditionalists whilst also appealing to my instinctive laissez-faire preferences socially as well as economically) has survived two world wars, countless cultural revolutions, waves of immigration and the era of globalisation because we have something to say to everyone - even if they ultimately disagree.
In morphing into the party of Brexit-at-all-costs, there is a real risk we become the party of the 52% and irreversibly alienate the Europhiles – employing the entire bandwidth of government against Europe, and showing Clarke, Hammond and Stewart the door only reinforces our image as a Brexit-obsessed cult, rather than a multi-issue party.
Boris came to power riding high on Tory pleas for things to be done differently. He’s charismatic, energetic and endlessly entertaining as a personality and displays the political strength and tenacity which always eluded his predecessor. However, a leader is only as strong as their situation enables them to be – with no majority, his hands tied by Parliament and Nigel loitering in the background, the PM should soften the rhetoric and ditch the Brexit obsession, otherwise he could become the best recruiting agent the Lib Dems have ever known.
George Wright (Political Officer, Ex-Secretary, Former Deputy Returning Officer, Ex-Treasurer, Ex-Whip, Ex-Committee Member, St John’s College) is an undergraduate in his second year of studying Philosophy, Politics, and Economics.