Nick Hargrave is a former Downing Street special adviser, where he worked under both David Cameron and Theresa May. He now works at Portland, the communications consultancy.
My career in backroom politics began in an institution called the Conservative Research Department. Depending on how charitable your view of professional politics is, CRD can either be viewed as the meritocratic engine room of the Tory machine that in the past century has produced more Cabinet ministers than any public school or Oxbridge college; or it can be seen as an elitist playground of Westminster bubblery that shows how remote the mindset of SW1 is from people in the country at large.
Fortunately, that is not up for debate in this column. The reason I mention it is because its interview process is reflective of the tension that sits at the heart of the Conservative Party. The way in which its leading participants react to this tension will determine whether it continues to exist in its current form.
The first question every CRD interviewee is asked upon sitting down is the immortal line: ‘why are you a Conservative’?’ As someone who interviewed more potential staffers over the years than I care to remember, it is a question with the capacity to flummox even the most articulate applicant and has done so throughout the ages.
It’s a brilliant interview question because there is no perfect answer. There are some unacceptable answers that will meet with a stony reception such as that enterprise should not exist or that the concept of a British nation is entirely without merit. But other than that, the tent is broad and the floor is yours. Acceptable answers include but are not limited to: a belief in personal freedom and liberty; a general love for the nation, its institutions and traditions; backing business and free enterprise; low taxes; wanting government to get out of the way; thinking government should focus its energy on programmes that give people the opportunity to make the most of their talents; aspiration; social mobility; the family; a hand up but not a hand out; supporting our armed forces; localism and community; a deep scepticism to the bureaucracy of the European Union and many more things besides.
The truth is this: conservatism is really a disposition rather than an ideology. It is a complicated web of values rooted in the free market and nation state that have fused together as a product of our national history, British level-headedness, a sense that getting things done in Government beats the pompous purity of Opposition – reinforced and helped along by the electoral system of first past the post. If the delicate web of values can be condensed into a simple sentence it is only this: a belief that change is inevitable and often beneficial but it must be managed organically and in accordance with the traditions of the country.
That at least would have been the historic definition. But the United Kingdom’s place with the European Union has gnawed away at this sense of unity for as long as I have been alive. It is the perfect juxtaposition of the competing values of national identity and economic security. And it’s been given new life by a worldwide reassessment of capitalism and nationalism in the displacing effects of a global market, a new era of digital discourse where the old give and take seems irrelevant – and David Cameron’s decision to get out of a political bind in 2013 by bringing this question to a head in a referendum. All despite the fact that our country is constitutionally ill-equipped to deal with direct democracy.
But we are where we are, the genie is out of the bottle and there is no point pretending that a second referendum will make this go away. The people are boss; they voted for Britain to leave the European Union and it must be implemented. We should also accept that, despite the best will in the world and no matter what clever solution is arrived at in the next few months, the debate about Brexit isn’t going to go away anytime soon.
There is no magical answer – whether compromise or extreme – that will suddenly make the country think this is dispatched and done. The only thing that could conceivably change the national conversation any time soon is a new arc of politics around a global recession, a global security incident or something else out of left-field and probably deeply unpleasant; and as corrosive and boring as Brexit is to our political culture, I would take it any day over those options.
Once you accept this premise, the path ahead for the Conservative Party becomes a little clearer. There are only three ways to go on the road ahead.
We can have a ‘soft split’, more likely if the Deal does somehow gets passed. We morph after March into an explicitly protectionist and nationalist party as a form of catharsis to what the then previous Prime Minister, Theresa May, agreed. This will be a popular position in some parts of Britain and it is where the bulk of our membership is. But it has little future in our capital city, other metropolitan areas and – in my view at least – it will provide diminishing returns over time with the voters of tomorrow. This scenario inevitably sees us becoming the ‘We Shouldn’t Have Signed the Deal’ party. There are many branching histories to this, but I think most of them end up with a Labour Government by 2022.
We can have a ‘hard split’ where the Conservative Party becomes separate political entities over Brexit-defined lines; the parliamentary flux over the next few weeks makes this a possible outcome. Dispassionately, if the alternative is chaos, there might merit to this proposal if the moderate Conservative faction were to find common cause with the moderate Labour one to deliver an orderly Brexit . But, again, the only way it doesn’t lead to a hard-left Jeremy Corbyn Government is if tribal loyalties were to be left behind on both sides. I am yet to be convinced.
Or, against all the odds, we find a way of muddling through and preserve our broad church for a time after the historical era of Brexit has passed (with an inevitable peeling off of some MPs on the extremes). To do this, the party can only do one thing. It has to come to its senses and decide an imperfect compromise – whether the PM’s current deal or the Norway option as a backup – is the best long-term bet for our political family and national unity. You would need a leader of exceptional political skill to make this argument given where we have got to now. Any takers?