Josh Neidus is a graduate engineer at Jaguar Land Rover, and is Chairman of Target Single Market.
Pragmatism should be core to any Conservative’s thinking. Indeed, it is the very foundation of the conservative ideals; a rejection of ideology, and basing every decision on the national interest, blinded by the political climate. Yet, as I write, the Government is again ideologically at war over its greatest challenge, Brexit.
After the shambles of last summer’s general election election, Ministers finally seemed to be reclaiming the initiative: ‘Oh, Jeremy Corbyn’ felt a somewhat distant memory and a relative calmness seemed to prevail. The Government was attracting a more positive press, phase one of the Brexit talks had been completed, and by and large the outcome had been well received.
The festive stillness was abruptly punctured last week on the eve of a speech given by David Davis with an intervention from the Brexiteer-in-chief, Jacob Rees-Mogg, reigniting questions over the authority of Ministers and their Brexit strategy. For the record, I am not in any way endorsing the Government’s policy on Brexit (particularly over the Single Market, as I have previously written on this site).
However, credibility during a negotiation – something that has been distinctly lacking – is key. The EU has rapidly learnt that displaying a united front at all costs is crucial to gain this credibility – that while they are 27 separate nations, all with their own agendas and ideology, they can demonstrate that central conservative ideal, pragmatism, by putting ideology aside.
By contrast, on this side of the negotiation, pragmatism seems to have evaporated, giving way to ego and opportunism. Before the negotiations had even commenced, the UK was already on the back foot, capitulating on major negotiating points. This has been further exacerbated not only by a disunited party, but a fractured government.
Moreover, last week’s leak to Buzzfeed suggests that the discontent reaches even the Department for Leaving the EU and the civil service. A lack of vision from the top sucks more life away from any credibility the UK had at the negotiating table.
Those leaks also showed, however, that the Government is more capable of modelling the fallout from Brexit than was initially thought by many. The conclusions of those models have left Ministers a little red-faced, since these suggest that leaving the EU, in any scenario, will have a detrimental impact on the UK economy.
Like many of us on the softer Brexit side of the party, I have drawn the same conclusion. No matter what one’s views are on leaving, one should conclude that a pragmatic response is not one that will harm our prosperity. But the present negotiating position is inevitability a weakened one: the Government is at risk of being lost in its own ideological fog, which destabilising not only the Brexit process, but its own entire agenda and the country’s economy.
The paralysis that is pervading government is also causing a vacuum in leadership. During the last few weeks, an increasing amount of discontent has been building over Theresa May’s reluctance to demonstrate leadership and insight. This is not strictly fair, but perception matters; the perceived lack of vision coming from the Prime Minister has meant that she is exposed to both sides of her party, since neither side can garner enough enthusiasm to publicly back her unequivocally. This leaves the electorate and EU with a sense of May constantly teetering on the edge of a full-scale leadership crisis, which further weakens her hand at the negotiating table.
To regain the initiative, she must quieten the critics on both sides of her party. I believe this will be best achieved by taking a pragmatic approach on Brexit. In my view, this involves looking at the trade-off between the Single Market and issues such as EU immigration as a sliding scale. On one side, full membership of the Single Market would mean complete free movement; whilst the other is WTO trade rules with full UK boarder control. If the Government were able to take a pragmatic approach and analyse the affect that each negotiating point has on the UK, it could then reach a position that is fundamentally in the UK’s long-term interests. For example, specific sector Single Market memberships could be negotiated at the expense of allowing some EU immigration in which quotas are set up on a country by country basis: this could all be based around a negotiated formula.
Whilst it is true that pragmatism can appear dull – a bit ‘beige’ – it is in times of national uncertainty it is most required. Taking the pragmatic approach on Brexit will also give the Government the political bandwidth to be more visionary on such incredibly important national issues such as the NHS and housing. Such an approach might not appease the hard Brexiteers, but it would allow the Prime Minister to gain support from the moderates of her party and, crucially, gain the initiative in the more centrist national debate. Taking this approach would also blunt Labour’s attacks: whilst it grapples with its own Brexit policy, Ministers could show a clear head and lead from the front – which most have so far struggled to do.
Pragmatism won’t please everyone; it will employ compromise and yes, the Government could lose face – but acting in the national interest today is also the national interest of tomorrow, and ultimately history will look favourably upon the Conservatives if they can respond pragmatically during times of national uncertainty.