Nicky Morgan is Chair of the Treasury Select Committee, a former Education Secretary, and MP for Loughborough.
“I have friends that I now can’t speak to about Brexit”, a Party member confessed to me in Birmingham. So do I, I thought. I’ve previously reported in this column that Brexit was banned as a topic at our family Christmas lunch, because it led to too many difficult conversations (also known as arguments). And, last week, I was correctly quoted as saying that Brexit has led to many political friendships and relationships that will never be healed. What did I mean by that?
Perhaps those who don’t have a strong view on Brexit, or haven’t taken a decisive position on it, will be luckier. Although, given that this is the biggest issue before the UK for decades, and MPs are elected to take a view on the issues of the day, I can’t really understand how any politician expects to avoid taking a position on Brexit eventually. And the minute they do, they will fall out with someone.
Being heavily involved in a political party and being elected as an MP is not just a hobby or even a job: it is a way of life. If you’ve been involved in politics for a long time, the chances are that many of your friendships, working relationships and even close personal relationships have their foundation in the Party. And the trouble with Brexit is that it isn’t just about taking a view on one policy issue. It captures a whole outlook on the world.
As we saw from the 2016 referendum, the results can be divided along age, educational background and regional lines. And it became clear then that many of the people with whom we thought we shared an ethos and outlook had a very different take on the world. And the differences seem so fundamental and so ideological it is hard to believe you’ve co-existed in the same Party for a long time.
In the autumn of that year, there was an opportunity for trying to heal those divisions, whilst acknowledging they were real and that there were parts of the UK which felt very left behind and undervalued. But the way to do that was to find and extol broad, shared values – not to set one group against another. To remind people why they are, basically, on the same side and want the same things, rather than to emphasise the differences. To create the politics of inclusion, not exclusion.
When a new Prime Minister gives a first party conference speech which suggests that certain people (tending to make up about 48 per cent of the population) should shut up and move on, without acknowledging their feelings of loss for a future that they thought was clear, then trouble will eventually follow. In the same way as New Labour made a huge mistake in trying to stamp out criticism of high immigration, labelling it as xenophobic and racist, so the people then labelled as such reacted accordingly, and turned to extremist parties to make their protest known.
And so it is within the Conservative Party. Those trying to represent the 48 per cent were shoved to one side, until the Party had thrown away its majority in 2017. In the Commons, the members’ tea room has become a place best avoided, or where Brexit is delicately skipped around. When the most disgraceful pressure has been put on colleagues about how they might vote on an issue of fundamental constitutional importance, then it is hard to ever see the person putting the pressure on in the same light again. Government PPSs have given interviews criticising serving Ministers in their own party – and no action has been taken. Association fundraisers have become places where speakers are beseeched not to raise Europe, because it just sets everyone off again. And when MP colleagues and councillors have either overtly or implicitly supported protests in your own constituency to call for your de-selection, then is it any wonder that the Party feels very unwelcoming?
UK politics will always need a centre-right political party. I firmly believe the Conservative Party is that party. But at some point in the next six to nine months the leadership is going to have to make a concerted effort to bring people back together and we are all (and I include Party members, supporters, donors and ConservativeHome readers in this) going to have to make a deliberate choice to put Brexit to one side and keep reminding ourselves that we have more in common than the last two years have suggested.