When Momentum gave their parallel conference in Liverpool the name “The World Transformed”, they seemed to neglect the fact that, thanks to the referendum, the world is already transformed and transforming beneath our feet.
Old political assumptions have been fundamentally challenged, new priorities and terminology dominate the headlines, common expectations of what the future looked like are in tatters, millions of voters are potentially up for grabs, the Government has changed, and with it the personnel and policies of the state.
And that’s just for starters. The scale of Brexit is remarkable – as David Davis told Iain Dale at our fringe meeting yesterday, “people underestimate how important it is”.
Such huge changes offer opportunities to a political party, but there are clear risks, too. Conservatives were heavily involved with both sides of the referendum campaign – one group or the other was inevitably going to be very disappointed. We lost our leader and Prime Minister the day after the result, and various laws other leadership hopefuls had their dreams dashed in short order in the weeks that followed. The new Prime Minister has swiftly had to chart a plausible path ahead which satisfies and unites her party as well as the country.
I’ve tried to go out of my way at this conference to seek out those Conservatives who were Remainers during the referendum. I didn’t expect them to be happy about the result, but I did want to try to gauge their mood – were they angry, or dispirited, or intent on fighting on?
To my pleasant surprise, while there was understandably some lingering hurt I found very little full-on negativity, beyond the few individuals one regularly sees on television rejecting the outcome. Far more common was the view that even if it wasn’t what they wanted, they still wanted to make the best of it; others were keen to emphasise that they had been reluctant Remainers at best, and therefore it hadn’t been too hard to adjust to the idea of Leaving; some expressed genuine anger, not at Eurosceptics but fellow Remainers who seemed intent on trying to Remain regardless.
In short, Conservatives are doing what Conservatives do best – adapting pragmatically to changed circumstances. Our Party likes to win, and it also recognises the real damage that would be done to the nation if Labour got anywhere near power; both motivations are best served by getting on with making Brexit a success, and the vast majority of Tory Remainers appear to be doing so.
During these conversations, I was struck time and again by the scale and pace of this political transformation. Eleven years ago, at my first Conservative Party Conference, The Freedom Association held an event in a slightly gloomy basement bar in Blackpool, where we unveiled Philip Davies as the only MP at the time who publicly supported leaving the EU. Plenty dismissed it as an irrelevance, others as somehow disloyal to discuss such ideas, but it was a start.
Eleven years is not a very long period of time. And yet here we are, not only with a Leave vote backed by 17.4 million people but with the result accepted and being implemented by the whole Conservative Party, led by a Prime Minister who sounded on Sunday like she had campaigned for Leave.
Our party’s ability to adapt is a key to its longevity – the willingness to challenge oneself to face political reality as it is rather than as one might prefer it to be is an admirable quality which has served us well when we have stayed true to it. When we strayed from that path, we lost – deservedly.
Those of us who supported Leave should take a moment to appreciate the difficulty for some Remain Tories to adapt in this way. We would certainly have found it painful to do in their place. Yet for the most part, they have faced it in a fine tradition of getting on with things. That is greatly to their credit, and to our Party’s benefit. It’s only just over 100 days since the referendum, but already we are starting to heal and move on to a situation where there aren’t Leavers or Remainers any more, just Conservatives with a job to do.