Being anti-Brexit and anti-Tory are easily confused. Nick Hopkinson argues that defeating the Conservatives in the next General Election would be a first major step to reversing Brexit, but ultimately we cannot change course, let alone rejoin the EU, without the support of Conservative voters (and eventually the Party).
Pro-Europeans ended 2021 with at last a glimmer of hope. The Government’s once seemingly irreversible hard Brexit project was undermined by government scandals, by-election defeats and small signs of thawing in the EU relationship as the Frost lifted. As the recent Daily Mail Deltapoll survey indicates, Boris Johnson’s tenure as Prime Minister appears to be weakening.
While scandals at Downing Street and shortcomings in the Government’s handling of the pandemic attracted most media attention, the Government’s ideological EUphobic stance was quietly watered down with some pre-Christmas concessions: long-standing opposition to European Court of Justice (ECJ) jurisdiction regarding the Northern Ireland Protocol was reported to have been dropped (in spite of subsequent comments to the contrary – paywall - from the new Foreign Secretary) and visa restrictions in agriculture and social care were eased (paywall).
A majority of voters may now want to see the back of Brexit, but that alone is not enough to end it.
The biggest political obstacle to reversing Brexit is of course the Conservatives, but our battle to do so would still not be won if they lost power. There remains the daunting task of trying to rebuild a strong pro-European consensus within the Conservative Party.
Europe has long divided opinion in the Conservative Party. The United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) entryism exacerbated long-standing tensions between libertarian ‘anti-marketeers’ and the so-called One Nation Tories. Eventually, the former purged the latter, culminating in Johnson’s suspension of 21 Conservative MPs who refused to back a No Deal Brexit in September 2019. Last year, former Minister Amber Rudd lamented the Conservative Party is no place for pro-Europeans. However, there remain many pro-European Conservative voters, some members and indeed Rudd herself now serves as President of the Conservative European Forum.
Many argue we can reverse Brexit if a Progressive Alliance of opposition parties wins power from the Tories. But not only is building a formal, even informal, alliance challenging, but the First Past the Post electoral system and the Conservatives’ ruthless electoral machine have to be overcome. The Tories have long succeeded in part by being able to reinvent themselves by promptly dumping unpopular leaders, off message MPs and failed candidates.
The Hungarian experience may offer lessons. Having been unable to oust authoritarian populist Victor Orbán for 16 years, progressive opposition parties have just taken the unusual step of appointing a right-leaning leader to appeal to Orbán’s base. Although an elected Progressive Alliance in the UK might create momentum for closer relations with the EU, it will not be enough to ensure we rejoin the EU. Like Hungary, we still need to attract considerable centre-right support.
Charles Grant suggests a key reason why our European vocation cannot be regained without Conservatives. “[Even] if public opinion shifts dramatically… British rejoiners would (still) face a problem with the EU,” he argues. “Most politicians in EU countries regret Brexit enormously. But they would not welcome a membership application from (any) Starmer government, if the Conservative opposition remained opposed to the EU. That is because there would then be a danger of Britain joining and leaving every few years. If there was a national consensus in favour of EU membership, European leaders would (then) be interested.”
Even if the Conservative Party loses the next General Election (a far from certain outcome), it will not go away. It will remain a major party, although there may be growing divides, on one hand between libertarian Brexiters and those wanting to keep broadly current standards of regulation, and on the other hand between small and big state Tories. Any Conservative defeat in upcoming General Elections may produce polarised internal outcomes: either the harder wiring of euro-scepticism prevails, or more optimistically there might be a renaissance of pro-Europeanism; after UKIP entryism, some Conservatives understandably want their party back! Or there might be a formal split, as, for different reasons, is being debated by Scottish Conservatives.
Many Pro-Europeans understandably oppose the Conservative Government because it took us out of the EU and wants to keep us out. But Pro-Europeans share many common values and objectives which transcend party identification. Pro-Europeanism cannot succeed if two fifths of voters supporting a major political party are ‘othered’. The pro-European space cannot be a vehicle to support a Progressive Alliance if that excludes and alienates such a major segment of support. The importance of centre-right pro-Europeans is downplayed at our peril. If we do not build bridges and work pro-actively with them, softening hard Brexit will be harder, and our hope to rejoin the EU will remain just that. So there must be a clear strategy to engage and encourage remaining Conservative pro-Europeans, even if they are currently marginalised within their own party.
The EU will simply not consider any UK application to rejoin until there is clear evidence of an all-party consensus. It may now appear unlikely that the Conservative Party abandons its majority ideological EUphobia. But let us not forget its chameleon nature. It is a party which has an occasional ability to split and re-form. It took us into Europe and out. We cannot even write off the possibility of a future Conservative Government even taking us back into the EU.
Brexit is disrupting the livelihoods of many. But the pain is not yet wide and deep enough, and sufficiently unambiguous to enough people decisively to turn polls. As opposition to Brexit grows, it will not just be attracted to and articulated within current opposition parties. To win, we need to be able to engage all major parties, both inside and outside Parliament, and support the pro-Europeanism sentiment within them. Victory will not be achieved just fighting old battles against the same enemies with the same old tactics.
Vice Chair, London4Europe
London4Europe blogs are edited by Nick Hopkinson, Vice-Chair. Articles on this page reflect the views of the author and not necessarily of London4Europe.