Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown is a Vice-Chairman of the 1922 Committe, and is MP for the Cotswolds.
Ever since the Second World War, the issue of Europe has been a divisive one for the Conservative Party. During the early 1960s, there was certainly a degree of enthusiasm for the European Project. Ted Heath, who was at the helm of negotiations was possibly the most Europhile politician we have ever had. But De Gaulle firmly vetoed the UK gaining membership to the Common Market: his opinion was that Britain was not a good fit for Europe; clearly he had a point. In 1973, Heath negotiated our membership into the European Economic Community, which was confirmed by a referendum in 1975.
It wasn’t until the late 1980s that the dilemma of Europe began to surface in earnest again, causing problems for the Conservatives. Throughout Margaret Thatcher’s premiership she was vigorous in fighting against the excessive powers of Brussels. Whilst she campaigned in 1975 for the UK to remain in the European Community, her tolerance with it was quickly tested. The European Community was being moved into a new direction: economic liberty and Single Market priorities were being superseded by the ideas of a political and social Europe. In 1988, Thatcher made her famous statement against a united Europe: “We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain only to see them re-imposed at a European level, with a European superstate exercising a new dominance from Brussels.”
During the early 1990s, the party was at civil war over Europe. The Maastricht rebels were a significant opposition to John Major. A treaty that proposed greater European integration led to a relatively small number of MPs fighting to block the ratification. Major defeated them. And hot on the heels of the Maastricht saga came our ignominious exit from the Exchange Rate Mechanism. But for many Conservatives the unthinkable had been sparked: the proposition that the UK could one day leave Europe.
David Cameron inherited a party that had not been in power for 13 years. Keen to end the divisions within the Conservatives and alarmed by the rise of UKIP, he committed to a referendum of EU membership in his 2015 general election manifesto
The European Union Referendum Bill was presented to Parliament and passed in 2016. The major parties committed to implementing the results. Large numbers of MPs from all parties publicly stated that they would honour the results of this referendum. Both Conservatives and Labour ran on a manifesto in 2017 which reiterated that promise. Many MPs have subsequently abandoned this position – refusing to honour their own manifesto promises to their electorate. This has led to the current arithmetic in the House and the Withdrawal Agreement’s blockage by Parliament.
Across Europe, there has been a recent trend of long-established right and left wing parties failing to match their electorate’s mood. Some centre-right governing parties have effectively disintegrated. In Spain, Partido Popular is down to 16-18 per cent from 33 per cent in 2016. Les Republicans of France are polling at 13 per cent, down from 22 per cent in 2017. In the Netherlands the VVD is polling at 16 per cent, down from 26 per cent in 2012. In Italy, Forza Italia is polling at just eight per cent, down from 29 per cent in the early 2000s and Sweden’s Moderata party is polling at 15 per cent, down from 37 per cent in 2006. This trend has also impacted some established socialist parties in Europe, most notably in Greece – where PASOK are now polling at six to seve per cent, down from 44 per cet in 2009. These parties are showing little signs of recovering and are being replaced by more populist parties.
I have recently campaigned for the local and European elections in my constituency of the Cotswolds, and I imagine that my experience on the doorstep was similar to many others. There is anger and confusion over the failure of the party to deliver Brexit, which we were elected to do so: Theresa May failed to do so. Unfortunately, this has revitalised Nigel Farage, whose Brexit Party has in the last two months emerged from nothing to a position where he is predicted by the polls to gain a substantial number of seats when the European Election results are declared tomorrow.
The voluntary party has been driven to utter despair: why otherwise would 70 Association Chairman have called for an Emergency General Meeting of the National Convention which is due to be held on June 15th to demand a vote of no confidence in the leadership? The professional party in CCHQ are hampered in their task as funding has dried up dramatically. Many MPs are bewildered over what to do as the Conservative ship is about to be engulfed by the storm ahead.
So how can the party be revived?
May’s resignation today was imperative. The Party should recognise and praise her for her valiant efforts to deliver Brexit, but for a variety of reasons she has failed. However, I think that most Brexiteers and Remainers accept that even more damage would be done to the Party if we end up never leaving the EU.
In the coming weeks, the Party will decide who our next leader will be: a new leader who will have the vision, toughness, flexibility and ability to find a solution to package the deal in a way that it might be agreed upon by Parliament. This is not as difficult as it seems. The European Parliament will be different if increased numbers of centre-right populist party MEPs are elected in the European elections. They will be much more sympathetic to the nation state rather than the will of the Brussels bureaucracy. Therefore, there may be greater willingness by Brussels to negotiate to resolve the Brexit problem.
A successful EU exit would remove the Brexit poison, and allow a new leader to reaffirm fundamental truths the Conservative Party stands for. Those fundamental elements that allowed us to be the most successful party for more than a current century. The new leader would then be able to build on our record – a successful economy, more people in work than ever before, and an ability to be able to build on the record amounts going into the Health and Education departments to create world leading services.
We already have a tremendous but almost unheard of record on the environment, and we are rising to the challenge of building new homes. All of those could be sold to the electorate as a proud Conservative vision for a future which is good for young and old. However, it is currently being drowned out by Brexit – which is why we must resolve this problem. Above all, it will be a total contrast to Jeremy Corbyn’s Marxist agenda which would send the UK economy into free fall.
A new leader must confidently deliver this clear domestic agenda, staving off the general election long enough to realistically give the Conservative Party a chance of winning. The party is at an absolute crossroads; we could win – or we could have a repeat of 1997 all over again or maybe worse, when the number of Conservative MPs halved from 343 to 165 and the party was out of power for 13 years.
We must be bold and positive if we are to succeed.