Joanne Bartley is an Education campaigner and a Conservative Party member from Kent.
I’ve had many conversations with Tory friends about the state of the Labour party. We wondered how anyone could stay with its Far-Left leadership and anti-semitism problems. I argued that decent Labour people should leave. Now I think that advice is wrong: they should stay and fight to save their party. I say this because I worry about the changing face of my own party.
I attended a Conservative Association event recently, and I was the only woman among a dozen retired and reckless No Deal Brexiteers. A 16 year old member and I dared to mention our support for Rory Stewart. We voiced our agreement with his message of compromise and we admired the realism in his Brexit plans. It became clear very quickly that we held the ‘wrong’ view. Our brand of moderate, pragmatic conservatitism was seen as a threat to our Party. It is natural to disagree about who should be leader, but I left the meeting feeling my Party is moving away from me.
Surely we must show respect and understanding towards members and MPs with differing views on Brexit? We must be Conservatives first, not Brexiteers. We shouldn’t forget that 30 per cent of party members voted Remain. This to me is a compelling argument for a moderate, risk-free Brexit, and an attitude of understanding to MPs who represent this view. Our hardline Brexiteer party activists risk driving away our moderate, Remain-supporting members.
I voted Leave, but I feel a great responsibility to Conservative members and supporters who happen to hold different views on Europe. Most Remain-voting Tories support leaving the EU, but not a ‘No Deal’ Brexit without a negotiated agreement. Remain-voting Conservatives have softened their position, and now accept that we must leave the EU, but why do Brexiteer Tories never bend to show sympathy for their position? The referendum victory seems to give most Brexiteers a winner-takes-it-all outlook, and the arrogance to support a style of Brexit that actually scares people.
I liked Stewart’s style, but was told he is not Conservative enough. This leaves me and many other members doubting our values. He talked mostly of community, patriotism, civic obligation, fiscal responsibility and the small things that made a big difference. I don’t see a socialist agenda in any of that.
Stewart’s campaign reminded me of why I became a Conservative in the first place. My Tory values are all about realism and good sense. I like that we’re the Party of getting things done, always careful and conscientious. I believe in government that is pragmatic, smart with money, and offers common sense policy. This fits the Tory theme of security. Our supporters want clear-headed government; we represent order and planning. We shun chaos and uncertainty, we’re always a safe pair of hands.
If we look at Brexit through this lens, then it is obvious why many of our voters will be against a No Deal policy. It’s not competent government to be so vague about the next few months, it makes no sense to ignore the Parliamentary maths, or to rush out of the EU without deals in place. This security-first sonservatism is a perfectly valid reason for MPs to seek to avoid No Deal.
I worry that Boris Johnson offers inconsistent messaging and far too little detail about what lies ahead. One day he says we leave on October 31st “come what may”, the next he says no deal is a million to one. One or other of these points has to be untrue. This is chaos – it’s the opposite of safety and moderation. He reminds me of the dad who says he’ll finish work early, but has said it before and not turned up. He has a style of doing things that creates anxiety.
Many Brexiteer Tories loathed Stewart’s Brexit plan. They didn’t notice that many Leave voters, like me, supported it because we simply believe that other plans lead to no Brexit at all. They didn’t notice that many Remain voters supported it because it detoxified the debate, and offered an unthreatening route to get this blasted thing done. Political compromise is unfashionable, but I think Stewart was onto something.
The advantage of a middle-ground approach, as he proved, is that it brings bigger wins for the Conservative brand. The more radical we are with Brexit, the narrower the number of people we appeal too. The more embarrassing our chosen leader and his unpopular, vague, messages, the harder it is to win positive social media attention. Millions of people oppose a hard Brexit, millions see critical comments about our party on Twitter and Facebook. None of this negativity can be countered by blue leaflets posted through letterboxes.
I worry that it is already too late to stop our party moving away from the moderate centre-ground. Sam Gyimha is a principled man, he stood in the leadership election to make the point that not all Tories hold the same view on Brexit. Now he faces a no confidence vote. Antoinette Sandbach has publicly criticised No Deal Brexit, and it seems another MP had asked her to leave the party. David Gauke voted three times for Brexit via the Withdrawal Agreement, yet he too faced a no confidence vote. What’s his crime? He believes that a No Deal Brexit is a bad idea. So do I. So do most people in this country. So do a great many people who voted for Brexit. Has our Party gone mad? We act like radical extremists when we chasten an MP for supporting the most commonly held position.
We need to tackle the hounding of good MPs by the radical Brexit wing of the party. I hope any new leader will take a stand and point out that conservatism is not only about the EU. If we are a single issue party we are diminished. Not to mention the fact there is a single issue party now out there.
I hope anyone reading this will consider their part in this problem, we must ensure our party welcomes all who call themselves a Conservative. The Labour Party should stand as a warning. It has becoming a party in which moderate views are unacceptable. The next few months will be difficult, but we must remember that our voters trust us to offer safe government and common sense direction. And they expect safety and good sense with Brexit as much as with any other policy.