The politics of Brexit remains ambiguous and divided

Comment

Timid and cowering. Get in line or get out. A grave error. He has to go.

When Philip Hammond voiced his hope that any changes in the UK’s relationship with the EU would be “very modest”, the reaction from the Conservative backbenches was anything but. The furious and wearisomely predictable responses to the Chancellor’s Davos comments underline the fact that EU membership has posed the most divisive and intractable problems for the Conservative Party in modern times – though, of course, issues of free trade and protectionism stretch back to the time of the Corn Laws. Perhaps the most memorable expression of this discord came in 1993, when John Major referred to three members of his cabinet as “bastards” following a fraught ratification of the Maastricht Treaty. Thirteen years and three electoral defeats later, David Cameron used his first conference speech to criticise his party for “banging on about Europe”. In 2013, it was the same David Cameron who used his Bloomberg speech to announce an EU referendum as part of the future Conservative manifesto – and the Conservative Party, in short, continues to bang on about Europe.

The Labour Party faces its own challenges. While the first referendum on belonging to the then-EEC (held under the premiership of Harold Wilson) was seen as a means of reconciling two feuding factions of the party, Labour’s stance grew dramatically more pro-European following the efforts of Neil Kinnock in the 1980s. Yet it has been the result of a second referendum, ironically enough, that has created a curious political crux for the party; namely, that while 65% of Labour voters opted to Remain, a similar percentage of Labour constituencies voted Leave. On perhaps no other issue does the somewhat-incongruous alliance of the (predominantly) younger, more prosperous urban voter and older, economically-struggling voter of the traditional Labour heartlands look more uneasy.

At least part of this modern phenomenon seems to stem from the ambiguity in the Brexit policy of both Labour and the Tories, which is in itself a product of the tensions and challenges that the two parties face.

It’s worth pausing for a moment in order to consider other parties on the British political spectrum: the Liberal Democrats, the Green Party, and UKIP. One might think that, from the perspective of the Conservatives and Labour, the third parties are in the enviable position of being neither internally divided on the matter of Brexit nor forced to appeal to a conflicted base. Thus, in their 2017 manifestos, both the Lib Dems and Greens were able to decisively pledge themselves to another referendum on membership of the EU (the former “lashed tightly to the mast”, to use Anne Perkins’ memorable metaphor), while UKIP announced six “Brexit tests” – among them deserting the customs union and the single market.

And yet, none of these parties seem to have gained any particular electoral success or prominence on the political stage. If the Lib Dems hoped to become the voice of the 48%, then they were surely disappointed in instead becoming the voice of a mere twelve constituencies. The election saw the vote share of the Green Party halved, and UKIP – now steadily disintegrating with every Henry Bolton story it sheds – haemorrhaged three million votes, coupled with the humiliation and subsequent resignation of Paul Nuttall as he failed to become an MP. The total number of votes cast for the two major parties, on the other hand, stood at its highest (82.3%) since the election of 1970, marking a landmark reversal in decades of partisan dealignment.

So, what happened?

At least part of this modern phenomenon seems to stem from the ambiguity in the Brexit policy of both Labour and the Tories, which is in itself a product of the tensions and challenges that the two parties face. In the early months of Theresa May’s premiership, it was this desire for obscurity that led to the PM’s infamous soundbites, among them “a red, white and blue Brexit” and the much-mocked “Brexit means Brexit.” And while the PM’s Lancaster House speech and Conservative manifesto would later clarify that Britain would leave the single market, both repeatedly emphasised that they will “seek” a free trade agreement. And if the multiple Conservative ruptures in the space of a couple of weeks – among them the Philip Hammond controversy, and the recent cabinet split over a post-Brexit membership of the customs union – suggest anything, it is that we are yet to progress much further than “Brexit means Brexit.” Likewise, Labour have been similarly vocal in their equivocality, promising to end freedom of movement while retaining the benefits of the single market despite the insistence of multiple EU leaders that the “four freedoms” – goods, capital, services and people – are inseparable. As Sir Keir Starmer put it in a column entitled “No “Constructive Ambiguity”, apparently without irony: “How that is ultimately achieved is secondary to the outcome.”

The challenge for parties in this political landscape is in fact encapsulated in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “test of a first-rate intelligence”: “the ability to hold two opposed things in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”

Conversely, it seems to be those same tensions that inform and inflame the reaction to Philip Hammond’s comments which are now crucial in sustaining the two major parties as viable electoral forces. Labour and the Conservatives must now seek, for their own electoral fortunes, to keep these hostilities bubbling below the surface without erupting into public displays of discord. The challenge for parties in this political landscape is in fact encapsulated in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “test of a first-rate intelligence”: “the ability to hold two opposed things in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”