Tom Hulme is the Political Secretary of Lincoln University Conservative Association.
Something is happening inside the Conservative Party.
Last week, Phillip Hammond told Robert Peston that a confirmatory referendum on Brexit is “a perfectly credible proposition”. Peter Oborne, Chief Political Commentator for the Daily Mail and a renowned Brexiter, wrote a searingly honest piece in which he admitted Brexit was a “disaster” and backed another referendum on the deal.
Shortly after, Huw Merriman, the Chancellor’s PPS – who has voted for the Prime Minister’s deal and keeping no-deal on the table, each and every time they have been brought before the Commons – spoke at a People’s Vote rally in Westminster. He told the audience that whilst he still believes Theresa May’s plan is the best option for the country, he accepts that the UK is in a political mess, and that seeing at first hand Parliament’s mishandling of our departure from the EU has brought him to the conclusion that the public couldn’t do a worse job.Even the Chair of the ‘Brexit Delivery Group’, Simon Hart, has told the BBC that another referendum may be “the last game in town”.
The significance of these interventions, as well as the growing number of Tories supporting People’s Vote amendments in the various rounds of indicative votes in the Commons, has not been properly understood.
To a certain extent, that is understandable. Since the People’s Vote campaign began last year, the fight to give the UK a public vote on Brexit has mainly been focused on getting the Labour Party on board. Campaigning social media is full to the brim of videos of young people directly addressing individual Labour MPs about stopping a ‘Tory Brexit’.
With no Labour support, there was no People’s Vote campaign, and these efforts have borne fruit – partially. After months of intense lobbying to the Leader’s Office, the Labour Party now has policy in favour supporting a public vote, in certain circumstances, and has whipped in favour of non-binding motions to this effect in the Commons.
But the lack of consequence for frontbenchers who don’t follow the whip, and deliberately misrepresent party policy in the media, means there is little incentive for the unconverted to change their tune. Like Brexit itself, support for a People’s Vote transcends party allegiances. That means the next stage has to see more moderate Conservative voices emerge, crucially including those who see a confirmatory vote as the best way to deliver Brexit.
Since Theresa May more or less confirmed her resignation as Prime Minister by the end of the year at the very latest, most minds on the Government benches have turned to the upcoming Conservative leadership election.
There will be a correct and inevitable focus during the next leadership contest – whenever that may be – on the existential problem facing the Conservative Party: how to gain younger voters.
Minds were sharpened at the launch of a report last week by Onward which showed that the average age at which voters are more likely to vote for the Conservatives than for anyone else is now 51. Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, correctly said that “voting Conservative used to be something people started to think about doing when they got their first paycheck and now it’s something people start to do when they get their first winter fuel allowance.”
So two of the major problems for my party – Brexit deadlock and lack of youth support, can be solved in one fell swoop, by backing a confirmatory vote on the Government’s Brexit Deal.
But this is about more than just the future of the Conservative Party. It’s about the future of the country. The values which voters and people across the world used to prize about the United Kingdom are Conservative values. Our stable economy, the breeding ground for successful businesses, and our reputation for grown-up stewardship of the country, have both been taken apart bit-by-bit over the last three years.
Britain should be a place which people aspire to be a part of because they know that if they work hard and play by the rules, they can get on in life. If you are a Conservative – whether a Brexiter or not – we can all unite around this ideal.
So my message to Conservative MPs, as a member for nearly ten years, and as someone who pounds the streets at election time and who has served on the committee of local associations and university societies is that there is a way forward.
In order for our party to be trusted by voters at the next election, we need to show them that we trust them here and now. We may have given people the opportunity to vote Leave, but we never trusted them to say clearly what Brexit means to them, and what meets the threshold for a ‘proper Brexit’.
A People’s Vote is a way of providing clarity on this issue, something which is desperately needed. Joining together those who support Remain, as well as supporters of the Prime Minister’s Deal, appears to be the main way to get a secure parliamentary majority. It would give proper clarity to both our political leaders and the country. If the public vote for a Brexit Deal, the campaign of those who want to stay in the European Union will dissolve like a sandcastle in the tide. But if instead we vote to Remain, the public will have done so, despite a clear Brexit alternative.
Millions of people across the country have put their faith in us time and time again. It’s time for us to show them how much their voices matter to us.