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Will the Conservative party ever recover from Brexit?

I am sure many sensible Conservative MPs and supporters hope that once we leave the EU, the nightmare of Brexit will pass, and they can continue to be the natural party of UK government. They know that Brexit is an advanced form of irrationality, but they hope that once the Brexiters have achieved their goal the fever will pass and it will be business as usual. In particular they can elect as their leader someone who has both an appeal to voters and an ability to take sensible decisions, neither of which Theresa May or her Brexiter usurpers is capable of.

This Brexit syndrome, which infects nearly half the Conservative party MPs and most of its membership, is a visceral dislike of the EU in all its manifestations. I am not talking about why most voters chose to leave, which was an unfortunately all too familiar reaction to a public campaign that has blamed immigrants for every grievance and fear they have. Brexit syndrome is instead manifested in a belief that you must leave a customs union with your overwhelmingly biggest trading partner so you can seek inferior trade agreements with other more distant countries. The only explanation for that belief is a deep irrational dislike of all things EU.

For those Conservative MPs not subject to Brexit syndrome I have bad news. Leaving the EU as planned is not a cure. The nightmare of Brexit will not pass. Whatever deal the UK eventually concludes with the EU, it will be unacceptable to the Brexiters. Only a clean break with all things EU will satisfy them.

Many people still write as if the nature of the final deal is still wide open, ranging from Canada to Norway, and they are encouraged to do so by the government and to an extent by the EU. But this, like the government’s position, seems to me to ignore the political imperatives. One of these imperatives is the agreement the UK has already signed, which precludes a hard Irish border. There is no good reason why the EU will go back on that agreement. Yes of course the EU is quite capable of ignoring the wishes of one of its smaller members if that conflicts with the wishes of the majority, but that is not true in this case. The Irish border problem forces a deal that involves the UK staying in the customs union and at least parts of the single market, and that is the type of deal that most of the actors within the EU would also like.

It is only a matter of time before this reality becomes clear to Conservative party members, most of whom are infected with Brexit syndrome. That will be the point at which Brexit MPs will feel confident enough to challenge for the leadership. They will have a powerful song to sing: how we are still obeying rules set in Brussels, but without any say in what those rules are. No sovereignty of the simplistic kind that appeals to nationalists, and no ability to pursue all those wonderful trade deals that Mr. Fox was going to obtain for British business. If only politicians had had the courage to go for a clean Brexit, and had not been dissuaded from doing so by treacherous civil servants. There are plenty more verses with a similar theme.

If you keep wanting something that is so impossibly bad for the UK that no sane leader would ever enact it, then you can go on agitating for it forever. The Brexiters will not stop when we leave the EU, precisely because the terms under which we are almost certain to leave will give them even more cause to complain. Ironically leaving the EU makes the Brexit problem worse rather than better for the Conservative party.

There is no quick solution to this problem. If a Brexiter was able to capture the Conservative party leadership, they could only get their clean Brexit through parliament by achieving a Conservative landslide: that was what May hoped for and failed to get. As long as the Conservative party is in government, the chaos and fantasy politics that the UK has suffered since June 2016 will stay with us. Even if a Brexiter did not replace May, the party would be paralysed by Brexit syndrome to a degree that would make John Major’s difficulties seem trivial.

It seems to me that there is only one way the Conservative party can go. There is no cure for Brexit syndrome, so those that have it must become irrelevant. That requires a long period in opposition, like the period Labour suffered from 1979 to 1997. A period long enough for the current Brexit membership, plus defectors from UKIP, to be replaced by more sensible people who can see that a party that suffers from Brexit syndrome is a party that can never govern effectively, and which is always in danger of doing the country great harm. 

It says a lot about so much of our political commentariat that so many words have been written in horror about how Labour is ‘suffering’ from an influx of new idealistic members who just want to make things better, while so few have been written about the very real danger caused by a moribund Conservative membership that just wants to break off all relations with our nearest neighbours.




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