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Whispering is not enough
22 Jan, 2019

Conservative Remainers should make more noise

London4Europe Committee Member Michael Romberg calls on Conservative Remainers to be braver.


Remain was and is a Conservative line

Winston Churchill founded the European Movement. During the dark days of the war he envisioned what became the Council of Europe. Harold MacMillan tried to take us into Europe. Ted Heath did. Margaret Thatcher pushed for the single market. David Cameron campaigned for Remain. John Major has spoken in favour of the UK’s continued membership of the EU.

In 2016 it is thought that 184 Conservative MPs voted Remain, 139 Leave (4 were undeclared). Amongst 2015 Conservative voters, 58% voted for Leave in the referendum and 42% for Remain.

Even now, though just under half of Conservative voters would feel “betrayed” and 10% “angry” if we stayed in the EU, a quarter would back Remain.


Few Conservative MPs have come out for a referendum

Yet only eight Conservative MPs have come out for a People’s Vote, including two from London: Heidi Allen, Guto Bebb, Justine Greening (Putney), Dominic Grieve, Jo Johnson (Orpington), Phillip Lee, Anna Soubry and Sarah Wollaston. It is a pretty thin haul from 317 Conservative MPs.

There are of course Conservatives prominent in the Remain campaign. European Movement Chair Stephen Dorrell is a former Conservative Minister; national EM Secretary and London4Europe Vice-Chair Keith Best is a former Conservative MP.

In Greenwich and Camden, and perhaps elsewhere too, there were Conservative Councillors who voted in support of motions calling for a People’s Vote.

But even though Brexit cuts across party lines, it seems as though Brexit is supported by all the Conservatives (and the Labour leader) while the opposition to it comes from Labour dissidents, Liberal Democrats and Greens.


Conservatives are for Leave but unity is less than it seems

The Party has become more Leave since 2016: 72% of current members and 68% of current voters voted Leave in 2016. That is a mix of ex-UKIPers joining or re-joining the Conservative fold and of Conservatives changing their mind (a quarter of current members who voted Remain now think Leave is the right answer). Brexit is a Conservative obsession. While 60% of the country rate Brexit as the number 1 issue facing the country, 75% of Conservatives do (that does not tell us quite as much as it seems to: Brexit is my number 1 issue too).

Conservative Remainers are frustrated by the feeling that their party’s government fails to respect their beliefs in any sense. All parties are coalitions. All parties have to agree a policy line otherwise nothing works. But from the outset the Government listened only to the Brexit ultra MPs – think of Theresa May’s red lines issued ex cathedra with no consultation. Minorities do not get to settle what happens next. But in a democracy they do need to be listened to.

In their constituencies, MPs are driven by a small number of activists who are not representative of the country or even of Conservative voters (the party has 124,000 members and received 13.7m votes; 44% of Conservative members are 65 or older, higher than the 30% for other parties’ members and 18% for the population as a whole). 57% or 64% or 76% of Party members support no-deal (depending on the choice offered – the highest figure is if the only alternative is Remain). 68% of members think the government has made a mess of the negotiations, 53% of all members and 67% of Leave-voter Members think that the deal fails to respect the 2016 result. 73% of members would feel “angry” or “betrayed” if Brexit did not happen.

Yet pointing out the lack of party unity over Brexit is a bit more than whistling in the dark: Conservative Remainer MPs, activists, party members and voters exist in far larger numbers than the party machine acknowledges. 14% of members and a quarter of voters would support having a further referendum. 15% of members and a quarter of Conservative voters would vote Remain in that referendum (that’s 3.4m Conservative Remain voters).

(Statistics in this section come from the ESRC Party Members Project – look at tables: for Party members' views; for voters in general; for demographics of party members)


Conservative Remain MPs need to be braver

In London there are 21 Conservative MPs. 6 are thought to be members of the “European Research Group”. 4 others are thought to have voted Leave in 2016. Of the 11 who voted Remain only 2 have come out for a referendum. 5 have government posts as Minister or Parliamentary Private Secretary and would have to resign first – as Jo Johnson did. One of the four who is not in the Government represents a Leave-supporting constituency. The other three do not.

It is of course easy to call on others to make sacrifices. But the five Remainers who have government jobs need to ask themselves whether they would not feel better about themselves if they joined Jo Johnson; it is hard to see why the three MPs who represent Remain-voting seats and who are not in the Government have not come out for a referendum. Loyalty is not a virtue when the leader is going in the wrong direction.

That said, the data on what party members think must be depressing reading for any Remain-inclined Conservative MP. They will have to think very hard about whether they would be able to survive in the party as an openly Remain-supporting MP – and whether they would wish to. If not, there are options for them to consider.


They also need to make pro-Conservative Remain arguments

At present, the Remain campaign sounds too much like a Labour front. When it addresses the root causes of Brexit that are located in domestic policies it comes out with austerity, inequality, under-funded public services, de-industrialisation – and the solution is more State intervention and spending. These are Labour’s arguments for the next general election. They will stop Conservatives voting Remain and they will stop Conservative MPs coming out for Remain/ a referendum on the terms.

Sure: these factors were part of the discontent that led people to vote Leave in 2016. But there were a lot of other causes. Austerity was hardly the driver in the prosperous Leave-voting South. Leavers prioritised sovereignty and immigration.

Conservative Remainers need to make the Conservative case for staying in the EU not just on pro-EU and anti-Brexit arguments but also addressing voters’ discontents with domestic policies.

Meanwhile the Remain campaign should say that domestic discontents were a driver for the vote, that all parties have proposals for addressing them, and that all solutions would work better if we stayed in (more money, government not overwhelmed by Brexit).


What you can do

Conservative MPs who come out for Remain or a referendum come in for a lot of stick. So they need to feel supported. So even if you are not a constituent, you could “adopt” a Conservative MP who has come out for a referendum and support them on social media, subscribing to their accounts and challenging their detractors.

If you are a constituent with a Conservative MP, do write. Even if they are ERG members they might not be a lost cause, with some perhaps agreeing with Dominic Raab that Theresa May’s deal is worse than Remain. Non-ERG Leave voters might be having second thoughts: Brexit, with its focus on utopian dreams and lack of connexion with reality is hardly a small “c” conservative project. A Leave-leaning MP with a small majority in a Remain seat is clearly vulnerable – have a look at the information in this chart of where MPs stand. The Remainers can be emboldened to come out publicly.

If you are a Conservative supporter or party member you can join the pro-EU organisations that are aligned with the party: Conservative Group for EuropeConservatives for a People's Vote; Citizens4Britain (Tories against Brexit). Through them you can try to persuade all Conservative MPs, not just your own MP.

But the single most emboldening action would be for Jeremy Corbyn to whip Labour for a referendum. Few are going to resign Government jobs for a gesture. Pressures from the party on Conservative MPs mean that they are not going to vote against the Government just to make a point. They will wish to win, otherwise their rebellion would have been both personally costly and futile. Winning means joining a solid block of opposition MPs, not just those rebelling against Jeremy Corbyn. What Conservative MPs can do to bring that about is to whisper to the Labour whips that they will vote for a referendum if Labour does.

Whispering is not enough. But it would be a start.





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