Henry Newman is Director of Open Europe.
Some would have us believe that the reason that the Conservatives are doing so badly in the polls is Theresa May’s Brexit deal. In fact, its precipitous decline coincided not with the advent of the Prime Minister’s deal, but with the failure to deliver Brexit on March 29. If the Withdrawal Agreement had passed the Commons earlier, and we had left the EU at the end of March as planned, it’s hard to see how the Brexit Party would have gained anything close to its current support.
The Conservative Party’s polling held up reasonably well after the Brexit deal was agreed by Cabinet, and well into 2019. Nigel Farage’s party’s meteoric rise is a direct result not of discontent over the details of the deal, but of delaying Brexit. And of course the European elections themselves are both an obvious manifestation of the lack of Brexit and a perfect platform for the Brexit party.
Interestingly, it is a Leave-backing party which is benefiting most. There is, so far, no huge Remainer realignment. Change UK – or whatever they are now called – managed a pitiful three per cent in last Sunday’s Opinium poll. The Liberal Democrats were a bit stronger on 12 per cent and the Greens on eight per cent (just up from the seven per cent that they scored in the last European elections back in 2014).
By contrast, the very growth of the Brexit Party points to strong continued public support for Brexit. In successive European election polls, around half the projected vote is committed to explicitly pro-Brexit parties – in that Opinium poll, the Brexit Party, the Conservatives, and UKIP together reached 49 per cent. And quite a chunk of the Labour vote comes from Leave supporters who do not (yet) see it as an anti-Brexit party.
So what should the Conservative Party do? The answer to the current nightmare is frustratingly simple – deliver Brexit. Nothing else will stem the haemorrhaging of support and the sense that voters have been betrayed. Almost all Conservative MPs would agree with this analysis, other than the small handful committed to a second referendum.
But how to deliver Brexit? The basic problem remains unaltered – there is no Commons majority for a No Deal Brexit. This point was well made by Ann Widdecombe who said, a month ago: “they don’t come more Brexit than I am. I would be perfectly content with a No Deal. Parliament isn’t going to go with a No Deal. Therefore the Brexit people in Parliament, whom I support, have just got to get a bit realistic. And to understand that their choice is the Prime Minister’s deal which at least sets us on the path to coming out or Ken Clarke keeping us in….I’m saying they need to get behind that deal.”
None of that analysis has changed (although Clarke is in fact a supporter of the deal and Widdecombe has now become a Brexit Party candidate). Ever since the Letwin/Cooper Parliamentary takeover, No Deal would need to command a majority to succeed.
The plan of the No Dealer MPs seemed to be to change leader and then win a Parliamentary majority and mandate for a No Deal Brexit. Even in normal times this would be a bold gambit – the last time the Tories won a real strong majority, of the sort which would allow a leader to ignore a few dozen recalcitrant MPs, was 1987. With the emergence of the Brexit Party, that sort of majority seems out of reach.
A general election could well kill off Brexit altogether. The Sunday Telegraph’s poll last weekend suggested that Labour would become the largest party in a general election, gaining power with the support of either the SNP or Liberal Democrats. In such circumstances, voting Farage would mean getting Corbyn; voting for the Brexit Party would likely guarantee no Brexit at all. And the election would, on those numbers, mean the loss of Boris Johnson, Graham Brady and Iain Duncan Smith, amongst many others.
The logic of the Parliamentary Brexit position has been apparent to many MPs. It was striking that on March 29 the Withdrawal Agreement was backed by every single Cabinet minister who had resigned over Brexit. I’ve been warning for months that the refusal of Brexiteer MPs to vote for Brexit put at risk leaving altogether. This is even more true now.
The biggest single problem with the Withdrawal Agreement for many MPs remains the backstop. As I’ve written before, I think that much – although not all – the criticism of this is misplaced. Crucially, the Strasbourg agreement reached in March guarantees that the UK cannot be trapped in the backstop by Brussels’s caprice. A new working group on Alternative Arrangements chaired by Nicky Morgan and Greg Hands is exploring possible options for the Irish border (and thus doing what the Government ought to be doing). What they might be able to do is convince critics that there is a path to escaping the backstop. What they won’t be able to do is convince the EU to remove the backstop wholesale from the treaty.
Will the cross-party talks reach agreement? It’s somewhat unlikely but far from impossible. If there were a general election before Brexit is delivered, many MPs on both sides of the aisle would lose their seats – there would be a great deal of churn. So for all those MPs, the incentives to find a way to deliver Brexit remain strong.
In policy terms, there’s little distance between both sides, but the political gap is large. The Labour leadership and particularly John McDonnell are keen to find a way to get Brexit done so things can move on (but are also keen to do damage to the Conservatives). However, other key figures including Keir Starmer, Tom Watson and the Labour Whips Office are strongly in favour of a second referendum.
For now, the focus is on the damage to the Conservatives that the Brexit impasse is causing. But there are major risks for Labour too. Yesterday’s YouGov poll showed that the Brexit party profoundly damaged both Conservatives and Labour. Labour’s position is flattered by its continuing ambiguity on Brexit. This would be put at risk by jumping definitively towards a second referendum.
The Conservative Party is amply demonstrating its ability to flip from complacency to panic. For months after the 2017 general election, it hardly seemed to respond to the loss of its majority. Now it risks tipping into a tail spin. Rather than re-opening a load of new criticisms of the Withdrawal Agreement, as John Redwood now seems to be doing (and which my colleague Dom Walsh responded to here), critics need to focus on what the actual options are at this point – for the country, for Brexit, and for the Conservative party.
Ninety per cent of Tory MPs backed the Withdrawal Agreement the last time it was put to Parliament. If the rest could be persuaded to do so too, Brexit could be secured, and the Party could move on to deciding which leader should take forward the next phase of the negotiations.