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After the Conservative Party conference
07 Oct, 2018

Remainers can rescue their party

Theresa May tried to make the Conservative Party sound more appealing to young and working age voters. That won’t work with Brexit. Yet the Prime Minister dug herself deeper into her Chequers Plan hole and ruled out a referendum on the terms. London4Europe Committee member Michael Romberg argues that Conservative Remainers can still obtain a People’s Vote. Two ways to do it. The choice is yours.

Theresa May’s Party Conference Speech (3 October 2018)

The Prime Minister began her speech (text here, video here) with a reference to those who had died in the Great War 1914-18. It is typical of her insularity and her lack of understanding of and sympathy with the European project that she did not make a connexion with the EU: the great European peace project, born out of the tragedy of two world wars, with Never Again as its ethos.

Much of her speech was an attack on Jeremy Corbyn and his faction in the Labour party. Fear and dislike of Corbyn is a great unifying force amongst Conservatives. Indeed, within the Conservative party Remainers and Leavers generally agree reasonably closely on everything else (unlike Labour where Remainers and Leavers have quite different values).

But that appeal must not blind Conservative Remainers to just how fundamental an issue Brexit is.

It stands at the heart of a Conservative problem that occupied much of the off-stage discussion at the conference. Why have the young, indeed many of those of working age, so totally deserted the Conservatives? Brexit of course is at the heart of the answer.

Sure, the advocates of Global Britain can point to a vision which – while intellectually drivel (nothing stops us being Global Britain in the EU, look at global Germany) – is exciting and outward looking.

But it is disingenuous for them to pretend that that was the campaign that won the referendum. The Leave campaign was founded on fear and loathing of the other: muslims, Turks, Poles, the EU. It was based on not sharing (money, sovereignty). It was an appeal to turn back the clock. For many young people and people of working age the Leave campaign was an echo of the Conservatives as the nasty party.

The Party’s conduct in government in taking forward the referendum mandate has reinforced that. Treating EU citizens as bargaining chips, the second world war rhetoric about Continental countries, not objecting to the vilification of the judiciary. All that, and other failings like the Windrush scandal, have shown a government and party out of touch with the expectations and aspirations of younger voters.

On Brexit the speech stuck to the undeliverable Chequers Plan which the EU has rejected. She in turn explicitly derided both models that the EU has offered, the only models that as a rules-bound treaty organisation it can offer: Norway/ EEA Plus CU, and Canada/ FTA with Irish backstop. She rejected a People’s Vote referendum.

Sure, Theresa May sought to appeal to voters as a voice of reason and compassion. Just as she had on her first day in office with her talk of righting burning injustices. But negotiating Brexit drowned out the government’s ability to act on them, while leaving the fires of injustice burning bright. Actual Brexit would prevent action because for years the government would be concerned just with keeping the show on the road. Politically, Brexit would mark the Conservatives out to younger voters for years to come as the party that stole their future.

How can the Party be rescued?

Simple. The Party needs to get off the Brexit hook without tearing itself further apart. The lesson of 1975 is clear. A deeply divided party can get round its problems by a referendum. That did not work in 2016 because Brexit stayed an open issue because Leavers had no plan. The referendum on the terms would settle the question.

We tend to forget that around one third of Conservative voters are Remain supporters (Survation March 2018). The same poll showed that getting on for half of Conservative voters would support the Government proposing a referendum on the terms (though since a lot of Leave voters supported the idea there must be doubt what respondents thought the alternative was (Remain or Leave with no deal)).

The proportion of Conservative Remainers is far higher than is normally understood by the Party Leaders, Members (who are more likely to back Leave), commentators or even the supporters themselves. There is a huge number there who can mobilise to good effect. 

Two choices for Conservative Remainers

There are two methods to change the party’s stance and Conservative Remainers will have to decide which is right for them. Fundamentally, Remainers have to decide their priority: party or Remain? And then they have to forecast the probabilities of success of different courses of action.

One method is to make clear through stating and acting on their personal intentions that the party will pay an electoral price for its support for Brexit. In more than 80 Conservative seats the number of Conservative Remainers is bigger than the MP’s majority.

The other is to work within the party to persuade – or perhaps just embolden – their MP to support a referendum on the terms with the option to Remain.

So Conservative Party voters or supporters could join the Party as a fully paid-up voting member and get active within the party. They could also join one of the groups that is campaigning for Remain:

  • The long-standing Conservative Group for Europe supports “the closest possible political, economic and security relationship with [the UK’s] friends, partners and allies in the European Union.”. Ken Clarke is the President and Dominic Grieve the Chair.

  • The new group Citizens for Britain / Tories against Brexit is seeking to mobilise Conservative and unaffiliated centre right voters. Its founding members include EM Chair Stephen Dorrell and London4Europe Vice-Chair Keith Best.

Contact – write to, or much better meet - your Conservative MP or prospective parliamentary candidate to make your position clear. (Even if you are not a Conservative supporter you can still contact your Conservative MP.) lt may have seemed pointless in the past, but with the Meaningful Parliamentary vote coming up it makes more sense.

Striking news from conference was the growing list of Conservative MPs coming out either absolutely or conditionally for a People's Vote: Dominic Grieve, Amber Rudd, Heidi Allen, Anna Soubry, Justine Greening and Sarah Wollaston. They are supported by a growing number of party grandees including John Major, that fundamentally decent man, a Prime Minister whose reputation rises as that of his successors falls.

There can be no real doubt that there are many more MPs who will come out for a referendum – or would if they thought that enough members and supporters would endorse their stance to make it worth the aggro they would get from the whips and the local party.

Views on Brexit cut across party lines. The Meaningful Vote in Parliament will lead to a crisis in British politics. All MPs will face a choice. Conservative MPs need to be encouraged by Conservative Remainers to come out for a People’s Vote. The case for it is clear. What is missing is the support from Conservative voters and members. That is where you come in.

 


Articles on this page reflect the views of the author not necessarily of London4Europe.