Tories The Tories have learned little from the Brexit vote in 2016. They have had a year to make sense of the shock decision and they have not used their time wisely.
People are tired with the status quo. People will not flock to vote ‘the right way’ after hearing sound bites. People are unimpressed by media management campaigns masquerading as politics. People want politicians to treat them like grown-ups, to argue for what they believe in and demonstrate that they are accountable. And they want a better life.
The vote for Brexit vote, in 2016, shattered the deadening sense that nothing could change. Political certainties were thrown up in the air. Significant change felt possible for the first time in a generation. Brexit voters, especially, felt a glimmer of democratic power. Middle of the road politicians and comfortable members of the establishment reacted with horror as they felt the earth shift a little beneath their feet. Their shock was recognition that nothing could quite be the same again.
There was an opportunity to map out a new direction and inject some self-belief and direction into our stultifying political culture. With the LibDems defining themselves as the defenders of the UK’s relationship with the EU and the Labour Party incapacitated between pro-EU Corbynistas and largely working class Brexit voters, it fell to the Tories to give meaning to Brexit.
In response to the vote to leave the EU, the Tories did virtually nothing. The Brexiteers wandered off stage and Conservative Party demonstrated little more than organisational coherence. Leadership was abdicated. The mantra of ‘Brexit Means Brexit’ demonstrated Theresa May’s commitment to honour the referendum result, but increasingly became exposed as a holding statement and developed into a national joke.
However, the mood changed when Theresa May gave her Lancaster House speech in January 2017. During the speech, May outlined her commitment to leave the EU and confirmed that Brexit will be followed through in full. She coined the term ‘clean Brexit’ and demonstrated an appreciation of what needs to be done. The subsequent passing of the Brexit Bill (EU Notification of Withdrawal Act) provided certainty. Brexit will happen. Public opinion polls showed that 68% wanted to see Brexit followed through successfully. Hard-line pro-EU campaigners started to sound hollow and resentful.
With negotiations due to start on 19th June, May looked to strengthen her position by calling an election. The election campaign could have forced the Labour Party to clarify its position and make people consider whether they will be on the side of the UK or the EU during difficult negotiations.
If the Tories had won an increased majority on the back of a pro-Brexit election campaign, it would have given them a stronger mandate at home and isolated hard-line pro-EU campaigners. It would have given Brexiteers authority over reluctant civil servants and the machine of government. It would have provided a sense of direction to wider society. It would have given the negotiating team confidence in negotiating a clean break with the EU and a free trade deal for mutual economic benefit. It would have given substance to the democratic mandate provided by the Brexit vote on 24th June 2016.
The result of the general election has drained authority from the governing party. The collapse of the LibDem vote confirms that Brexit has largely been accepted as a reality and people want to move on. The collapse of the UKIP vote further confirms this.
So, why did the Conservative Party fail so badly?
The Tories had an opportunity to tap into the democratic spirit expressed by the Brexit vote. However, Theresa May’s team was fearful of public exposure. May refused to debate with other party leader on TV and local appearances were stage-managed. The Tories relied on a controlled media campaign at a time when people wanted authenticity, honesty and debate. This revealed the Tories distance from the population and their ultimate fear of democratic engagement.
Tellingly, when May was asked in interviews about why Brexit must be pursued, she simply answered, “it is the will of the people”. Indeed it is, but she failed to articulate why leaving the EU enables greater accountability. May looked like she was simply doing a job without any understanding of why she was doing it. May was dubbed as ‘robotic’ and it stuck.
The Tories failed to outline the challenges that lay ahead in the EU negotiations or to counter the narrative from the EU. When Tory HQ allowed David Davis to speak publicly, he articulated the government’s proposed approach. For example, he explained how a trade deal needs to be agreed before you can make arrangements for the Irish border – an obvious counter to the EU’s demand to settle the border question first. Appearances like this were few and far between.
There was an opportunity to present a vision and plan for the UK after Brexit. It is not hard to link the democratic repatriation of EU powers to specific policies. This approach would have demonstrated, practically, how leaving the EU could increase democratic control of government policy. Instead, May’s small coterie of advisors avoided Brexit and attempted to take the Tories to a soggy middle ground and claim it as their own, at exactly the time that people were looking for clarity and purpose.
Theresa May proved to be a managerial politician with little imagination. She has no appreciation that policies need to flow from political purpose. May didn’t fail because of the dementia tax debacle or NHS funding, she failed because she was unable to convey a clear vision on post-Brexit Britain. She failed to generate a sense of collective purpose with greater political accountability.
Theresa May’s failure shows a failure of the political class to understand the profound character of the Brexit vote result. In June last year, people voted on our relationship with the EU, but they were demanding much more. People voted in record numbers because, for the first time in a generation, their vote counted and it mattered. The vote for Brexit was rejection of carefully stage-managed media campaigns and the pronouncements of experts defending the status quo. It was a demand for politicians to be accountable to us, not a faceless bureaucracy. It was a demand for change.
Ironically, Jeremy Corbyn, who has done the most to avoid the issue of Brexit, has accidentally tapped into its potential. Corbyn’s Labour Party has addressed the desire for change. Labour’s programme may be limited to nationalising a few companies, spending more on public services and increasing taxes, but it has appeared transformative in comparison to years of Blair, Brown and Cameron and the Tories current hesitancy. Corbyn benefitted from the national mood that we no longer want ‘more of the same’.
Neither the Labour Party nor the Tories have the answer and little is clarified or resolved. Carrying on as before is no longer an option. The potential and need for a new political approach presents itself. The political class can no longer take everyone for fools.