A few days ago, on April Fool’s Day, the Guardian ran a spoof story about the need to bring the UK back together after Brexit. The article was obviously silly, and the idea of flotilla-bashing Bob Geldof being charged with salving the wounds was especially far-fetched, but for a few seconds at least I nodded along with it, because the basic point is right. Someone is going to have to heal the nation’s pain and generally clean things up once this farrago is finally concluded. But who, and how?
During the referendum campaign plenty of people were willing to concede that if we weren’t in the European Union already we might not join it in its current form, but the pain of leaving wasn’t worth it. These ‘pragmatic remainers’ were no doubt thinking primarily of the economic and social impact of departing, and not that the greatest damage of all would be to politics, to the way Britain governs itself. And yet that is the reality.
It’s difficult to project back three years but I am not sure anyone then could have imagined what a total mess our political classes would make all of this. How craven and self-serving they would be, hypocritical, weak, unprincipled, incapable of looking beyond personal or party advantage. There are honourable exceptions, people who have stuck doggedly to coherent positions on either the Leave or Remain side, or who have bravely changed their minds and set out their reasons why, but as a whole the political class has failed. Their reputation is shot to pieces.
The damage is huge; trust has evaporated, and divisions and anger abound. And what’s worse is the process is far from over. We are a long way from passing the Withdrawal Agreement, and that is only meant to be temporary; the arguments and negotiations over our permanent relationship with the EU could roll on for years. And even once that is settled the campaign to rejoin the club, or to leave it properly, will start straightaway.
Anyone who says “we should just leave, No Deal, and everyone will move on”, or “we should have a Second Referendum, that will solve everything”, is profoundly deluded. Without far deeper change Brexit will be a never-ending saga which at worst will continue to foment antipathy and division, and even at best distracts us from focusing on much more important things such as the unaffordability of the NHS, the failings of our education system, and our deep problems with productivity and years of failing to invest in infrastructure. We need a complete rupture from the past, something that puts the whole of the past three years behind us.
An important part of this is the Conservative Party. For starters it needs to skip a generation to find its next leader; anyone tainted by Brexit would be a disaster. Can anyone seriously imagine Boris Johnson or Amber Rudd leading a united party, let alone bringing the country together? There are more suitable people who are perfectly capable but in its current mood I’m not sure the Party will accept a Leaver who has compromised, or a Remainer who has trimmed. Their motives will always be questioned. Time instead to look deeper into the ranks.
In choosing who should be its new leader it is time for the Conservative Party to confront a central dilemma. Many of its longer-serving MPs are pragmatic about the EU, or in favour. Its newer ones are not. Its activists are Eurosceptic, but a lot of its supporters and potential voters are not. The Party has become tribalist and inward-looking about this single issue and looks to all the world like a bickering bunch of (public) schoolboys. Whatever it does from here this was to end.
Why? Polling released in the past few days by the Onward thinktank showed just how younger voters are turning away from the Conservatives in droves. In part this is because of the Party constantly banging on about Brexit, but it is also because it has nothing important to say about just about everything else. It is irrelevant, ageing and pointless. To say that it needs once again to become the party of dynamism, aspiration and enterprise is easy; Tories now need to do so, under an inspiring new leader, and have the self-discipline to put Brexit behind them once and for all.
The Labour Party has problems of its own, on Brexit and on a lot else besides. Finding a balance between progressive, younger, mainly big city Remainers and more conservative, older, smaller town Leavers is no easier for Labour than being a ‘broad church’ is for the Tories.
But Conservatives claiming that Labour is “just as divided”, dismissing Jeremy Corbyn as incompetent and a Marxist, and deriding Labour policies as naïve and dangerous are missing the point. However crackpot they are, at least the Party has ideas. They might be damaging but they might not; and for people with no job security, no stake in the housing market, and no faith in established politicians, voting for Corbyn is no more of a risk than voting for Brexit. In fact both offer a kind of hope and the chance to stick one in the eye of politics as usual. This is a seductive blend.
So unless the Conservatives get their act together we are faced with a bleak future. The next leader of the Tories is likely to be a populist chancer, who will fight a populist ideologue in an election of colourful insults. Both parties will be essentially pro-Brexit and will probably have little else to say leaving millions of people feeling disenfranchised and uninspired. That may open the way for either or both main parties to split (although the failure to launch of the Tiggers doesn’t bode well). Faith in politics will plunge further.
Or the Conservatives could find a new leader with something new to talk about. (Labour could too, but with Corbynistas seemingly in firm control that seems less likely.) It really is up to the Party. If it can bear to find a leader who barely mentions Brexit, it – and UK politics – will have a bright future. If it does not we have many, many, more years of this crisis before us.