Britain’s place in Europe has been a bone of contention in the Conservative Party for decades. Moderate Tories like Kenneth Clarke and Dominic Grieve were able to grasp and appreciate the complementarity of unfettered trade with our largest economic partners and conservative philosophy. They also knew that Winston Churchill, a much-invoked figurehead of conservatism, was an enthusiastic proponent of post-war European integration.
Free trade as a component of economic liberalism is a lynchpin of conservative ideology. While Liz Truss heralds the negotiation of deals with non-European nations, most of which merely roll over those previously enjoyed as EU members, trade with our nearest neighbours is hampered by delays and burdensome admin. This regressive imposition of barriers to trade with Europe would be anathema to Margaret Thatcher, the other figure that looms large in the memories of many Tories. Thatcher herself had the economic nous to acknowledge in her now-legendary Bruges speech that Britain’s destiny was not “some cosy, isolated existence on the fringes.” She also succeeded in balancing an instinctive suspicion of European federalism with the geopolitical and economic realities of life as an island nation on the edge of Europe.
“Uncompromising, absolutist Brexit strategy”
An uncompromising, absolutist Brexit strategy has seen the Conservatives abandon their longstanding voter bases in farming and fishing communities. As the impact of an extreme withdrawal from the EU become increasingly clear, the Tories are being forced to court votes in previously uncharted territory. Nothing symbolises this like their victory in the Hartlepool by-election followed by their defeat in Chesham and Amersham. Small-c conservatives find themselves dismayed at Johnson and co.’s direction of travel and their abandonment of moderation in favour of a brand of Brextremism designed to appeal exclusively to hardcore Leave voters. Ironically, many voters in areas of the country most negatively impacted by the Tories’ descent into populist isolationism inexplicably embrace the Johnson brand – a kind of political Stockholm syndrome. Unlike Labour, the Tories have avoided open panic and bitter recriminations over a gradual loss of support in their traditional heartlands.
Historically, the Conservatives have constructed a narrative of being the party of ‘the rule of law’. Yet, in pursuit of an extreme Brexit, they have morphed into an untrusted entity, willing to prorogue Parliament illegally and break – or at least threaten to break – international law to appease backbench Brextremists. An international reputation as a trusted lawmaker has been squandered and, in the process, Britain’s standing in the world is diminished. Furthermore, Conservative MPs who once exerted disproportionate influence over the direction of Brexit as part of the European Research Group insisted on an extreme version of Brexit that brought about an end to freedom of movement. The Covid-19 pandemic has seen Steve Baker and other Brexiteers represent a thorn in Boris Johnson’s side, often citing ‘freedom’ as their raison d’être and the principle underpinning their fervent opposition to virus containment measures. There is a bitter irony at the core of this hypocrisy – it seems that ‘freedom’ is a malleable concept that only Brexiteers get to define.
The reasons for the Conservative Party falling victim to this moral vacuum that has sucked out its philosophical soul are interlinked and have a common root – Brexit. Leaving the EU has forced the modern Conservative Party to morph into the Brexit Party in all but name. The election of Boris Johnson as party leader in 2019 is testament to this evolution, as is the consequent requirement for prominent ministers to be sworn disciples of the Brexit project, even those who had previously campaigned to remain. This absolute, unswerving allegiance to the cult of Brexit has given rise to a toxic, pseudo-religious culture of post-truth populism.
So, what does the future hold for the Conservative Party under Boris Johnson? Given that Johnson’s personal popularity is deeply rooted in his position as a chief flag bearer for Brexit and his reputation as a political maverick, it seems unlikely that any change of direction will come under his leadership. Johnson has been successful in quelling potential backbench rebellions over Brexit and, more recently, lockdown restrictions, presumably as a result of intensive behind-the-scenes dialogue. The Conservatives place party unity above all else, preferring to avoid the kind of open civil warfare that continues to plague Labour.
Nevertheless, the Conservative Party stands at a crossroads in their history. Having effectively rebranded itself as a populist party with Brexit as its primary motivation, they – both the parliamentary party and the membership – must decide where its future lies. Should it wish to permanently abandon its historical reputation as an outward-looking, multilateralist party of free trade and opportunity, it should be reassured that those wheels have been set in motion. If, conversely, it seeks to rehabilitate its reputation beyond the Brexit lobby, it would do well to look carefully at the polarising nature of its leadership and the principles already sacrificed in pursuit of a populist agenda that saw even Winston Churchill’s grandson deprived of the whip. The loss of other moderate parliamentary voices such as Dominic Grieve and Justine Greening and the election of avowed Brexiteers to fill the Tory backbenches means that the party is, for now, firmly committed to law-making that appeases unapologetic Leave voters while alienating moderate Remain-supporting conservatives.
Only the party itself can decide whether or not to repair its wounded soul and escape its self-imposed existential crisis.