Alex Morton is Director of Policy at the Centre for Policy Studies, and was a member of David Cameron’s Downing Street Policy Unit.
The Brexit process continues to unwind and unfold. Where it will end up, nobody quite knows – if you ask two people in Westminster what will happen next in Parliament, you will get at least three or four opinions. It gets even more complex when you consider the complications arising from, among other things, the political difficulties in Germany, or the Italian government’s increasing antipathy towards the Commission, all of which may feed into the final result.
But while this parliamentary debate is shaping the process and outcome of Brexit, it will also have a fundamental impact on what comes after. Whatever form Brexit takes, it seems likely that a significant group of Conservative MPs – and, depending on what is agreed, the DUP – will be less than happy with the result. Issues with the DUP in particular could either bring about a fresh election, or a long wait to see whether the issues around the promised temporary backstop can be resolved, or a move to minority government as the DUP apply pressure to resolve any backstop issues without toppling us. Whatever happens, it is likely to make governing more difficult.
Rattling along at speed or slowing to a halt
Labour’s second most electorally successful leader, Harold Wilson, once said of governing: “If you rattle along at great speed, everybody is too exhilarated or seasick to cause any trouble. But if you stop, everybody gets out and argues where to go next.” It was once said that the secret of Margaret Thatcher’s success was moving steadily on multiple fronts so that her enemies did not know where to focus their attention.
Even if a Brexit deal is backed by Parliament and we leave on 29th March next year, the Conservative Party will have been through a difficult period. Brexit is a difficult process that has, perhaps inevitably, taken up most of the available political bandwidth. So how can the Conservative Party come together afterwards, around an agenda that keeps people on board and the Government moving?
Some (particularly on the Remain side) have suggested the formation of what amounts to a national government, with the Prime Minister governing from the centre of parliament, using centrist Labour MPs to push through legislation that the right of her party strongly disapproves of. It would be a brave tactic at the best of times – but given where we will be next Spring, it would be likely to cause a complete meltdown of the centre right and potentially a catastrophic schism.
Yet given the parliamentary arithmetic, governing solely from the right is no easier an option. A leader adopting such a strategy – which hardly fits with how May has governed so far – would still have to give some nods to the left of the party, for example by focusing on support for low-income workers, or continuing the overseas aid commitment.
There is, however, a lesson here from May’s predecessor. David Cameron managed to hold the Conservative Party together for 11 years. And yes, he had a more favourable parliamentary situation – but far from an impregnable one.
Education reform, welfare reform, green reforms, the 0.7 per cent aid commitment, the tax lock, the EU referendum, gay marriage. Almost no one liked all of these – I certainly didn’t like all. But the point was that wherever you came from in the party, the Government was doing things that you liked and could support. This meant even with the Coalition, or later with a small majority, the Government was just about stable, because people felt that if it collapsed some of their goals would be lost as well.
Do not forget the power of EVEL
There is another reason the best way for the Conservative Party to come together is by pushing a radical agenda from the centre of the party: EVEL.
There will be those who argue that the best way to counter this threat is to play it safe and to simply hold the fort – not least given the lack of a Commons majority. But the way that English Votes for English Laws works (see this previous column) ensures that a reforming Government actually has the best chance not just of countering Labour’s duplicitous arguments, but of keeping the show on the road and party together.
The way that EVEL is structured means that the Commons would have to block entire Bills, which is a much bigger step than amending particular elements. I do not think it is as likely that MPs will feel as comfortable voting down major pieces of legislation compared to amending particular clauses in a Bill. This is doubly true if they form part of a wider agenda and where voting down a Bill could destabilise the entire programme.
By pushing for wider reforms across whole areas of policy, and multiple reforms together, the Government will build affection and support both within the party and the country, even if on any one area not everyone agrees with what is proposed. By contrast, small bills and small solutions will see MPs grow restless – and are no more likely to get through the Commons. Yes, the Lords may throw out some of the proposals – but better that we find a way to take this problem head-on and show we are fighting for something than just sink into inaction.
Being bold from both sides is our best shot at holding it together and beating Corbyn
Post-Brexit, there is a need for big ideas from both sides of the party. Some voters will inevitably be disappointed by the form Brexit takes. And when the next election comes, we will be asking for well over a decade in power – so we need to show why we deserve it. More than that, the best way to keep the show on the road will be to set out bold reforms. Inaction risks an early election – which is why, after Brexit, the party is best served by rattling along rather than grinding to a halt.