Daniel Hannan is an MEP for South-East England, and a journalist, author and broadcaster. His most recent book is What Next: How to Get the Best from Brexit.
Here’s the Conservative quandary. We can’t face the electorate before leaving the EU. But we might not be able to leave the EU without an election.
There is no getting around that dilemma. All the potential leadership contenders privately understand it, as do growing numbers of MPs. The question is whether they are brave enough to place such an unpopular truth before party members.
When I wrote on this website six weeks ago that the Conservative Party was headed for a single-figures vote in the European election unless it ditched Theresa May, there was much scoffing. Yes, I was told, things would be bad, but not that bad. Lots of clever Tories explained to me that we had never gone below 25 per cent in any election, that we had a core vote, that – being a candidate myself – I was just suffering from nerves.
Well, on Thursday, we secured 9.1 per cent. If we break that vote down by constituency, every single Tory MP loses. The first-past-the-post system is capricious. It protects you until all of sudden, it eliminates you. Ask Scottish Labour.
As long as our political debate revolves around Brexit, people are likely to vote for the most hardline pro- and anti-Brexit parties. Indeed, the longer this wretched argument goes on, the more radicalised both sides become. When people see the same political dispute on the news day after day, month after month, they pick sides, identifying as Remain or Leave rather than according to their old party alignments. Again, ask Scottish Labour.
Three years ago, we were in the middle of the referendum campaign. I was manning street stalls and speaking at rallies every day. Often, I would run into Stronger In activists in their blue tee-shirts. We would pose for selfies together and wish each other luck. Back then, it was still a civil conversation rather than a civil war. Leavers were arguing for a close and cordial relationship with the EU after Brexit. Remainers were promising to accept the result if we voted to come out.
The polarisation has come since the result, and it has become worse with every passing week. Most Leavers now want no deal; most Remainers want another referendum. The moment when both sides might have accepted a compromise – ideally something along the lines of EFTA – has probably passed.
Whose fault is it? Hardliners on both sides must take their share of the blame. Those Remainers who promised to respect the result, but then worked to frustrate it, have done terrible damage to our politics. Those Leavers who, forgetting everything they said during the campaign, now insist that anything short of No Deal is a betrayal, have likewise destroyed trust in the system.
But the chief responsibility lies with Theresa May. It was she who dug in on the wrong issues while conceding on the wrong issues, who mulishly insisted that it was all about immigration, who managed to convince both sides that she was secretly working for the other, who so aggravated EU leaders that, by the end, they were predisposed to reject anything she asked for because it was she who was doing the asking.
Worst of all, she called and then lost the 2017 election. From that moment, it was clear that Parliament was prepared to frustrate Brexit. The EU got the message, and started making deliberately absurd and vindictive demands, culminating in the Irish backstop which, incredibly, Theresa May accepted. We now face withdrawal terms so disadvantageous that they are worse than either staying or quitting – exactly as Michel Barnier intended.
Which brings us back to the Catch-22 with which I opened. Parliament does not intend to allow any government to leave the EU with no deal, and the Speaker of the Commons has made clear that he is prepared to bend the rules in any way necessary to secure that end.
In normal times, a Conservative leader would go to the country saying, “Give me the mandate I need. If Brussels knows we are ready for no deal, we will get a good deal. We just need the numbers in Parliament. Do you want me in charge, or a Marxist nostalgic who refuses to have a position on Brexit?” In normal times, such a leader would win comfortably.
But these are not normal times. A large chunk of the electorate is now disposed to blame the Conservatives for the impasse rather than the parties that have actually been voting against Brexit. Nigel Farage has confirmed that he plans to contest every seat at the next election. The idea that he might stand aside in certain constituencies in order to stop Corbyn is based on a misunderstanding of how he operates. He is back at the head of a populist insurgent party. The last thing he wants is to have that party’s grievance addressed and so put himself out of business.
Is there any solution? Possibly. It may be that Parliament cannot in fact block a No Deal Brexit. It may be that, if forced to choose, MPs will baulk at voting to revoke Article 50. It may be that France, or another EU state, vetoes any extension beyond 31 October – though that is unlikely.
Or it may be that the Tories could in fact win a general election. Perhaps I am wrong about Farage’s motivations, and he will agree to an electoral pact, fighting Labour in the North while standing aside in the South.
Or maybe there’s another way out of the jam, one I can’t think of. But what cannot be denied is that the dilemma exists. There is no point in saying “Just leave!” or “I’ll get us a better deal!” unless you are clear about how you intend to do it.
The trouble is that, in the current mood, those are precisely the slogans that many Tory activists want to hear. The candidate who levels with them, who sets out the dilemma honestly and outlines a proposed route out of it, may become unelectable. As I say, Catch-22.