28 March 2019, The Tablet

What the Conservative Party really needs is a shift to the left

Clifford Longley says that what Brexiteers really want is a bulldog bruiser, prepared to knock spots off 'those tricky foreign chappies in Brussels'

What the Conservative Party really needs is a shift to the left

Jacob Rees-Mogg speaks to the media outside his Westminster home, the day after MPs held a series of indicative votes on the way forward with Brexit.
Photo: Kirsty O'Connor/PA Wire/PA Images

The prime minister's offer to throw herself on the Brexit bonfire, hoping thereby to persuade Tory MPs to support her Withdrawal Agreement, has a feeling of tragedy about it rather than farce. The House of Commons debate on alternatives to her agreement, in progress down the parliamentary corridor, was suddenly denuded of Tory MPs when word went out that Theresa May wanted to address them. Packed into a crowded committee room, they heard her say she had received the message some of them had been trying to signal to her, namely that she had herself become an obstacle to the passing of her agreement in the Commons.

But it may not be true. In which case the conditional sacrifice she was offering would be in vain. Or it may achieve the opposite of what she intended. The reasoning would appear to be that the right wing of the Tory Party did not trust her to strike a tough enough pose in the next stage of the Brexit negotiations. They wanted to put in charge a true believer in the Brexit creed, and regarded her as too half hearted and insincere. That would be likely to constitute a significant shift of the Conservative Party to the right.

Yet what the Party really needs is a shift to the left, by a couple of big strides towards the centre ground. That would be the only way of building a consensus for the next stage of Brexit, and it is the inescapable logic of the need to manage a hung Parliament on which no one party can impose its will. It is perfectly true that her approach to Brexit has failed to rouse the mob into ecstasies of patriotism as the date approached for the United Kingdom to leave the EU. She was too clinical, insufficiently ideological, for them.

And possibly too female. They want a bulldog bruiser, prepared to knock spots off those tricky foreign chappies in Brussels. And because she is not very ideological she failed to notice what they were up to. It was a take-over bid by, or at least on behalf of, Boris Johnson, who can indeed supply the nationalistic Trump-style fervour they think has been lacking. He would be a truly dreadful prime minister, even worse than the last truly dreadful prime minister, Mrs you-know-who.

Meanwhile the House of Commons itself was engaged in a serious attempt to find a way out of the Brexit impasse, by holding a series of "indicative votes" on various options. Each option was rated according to the number of votes in favour and the number against, and the outcome was immediately but misleadingly hailed as a defeat for all of them. But it was intended to work that way; indeed the process seemed designed to take for granted the assumption that a cross party majority would take some time to discover and refine, as MPs addressed the need to compromise after the first round. Instead it was treated as a first-past-the-post game with winners and losers.

But the debate itself was enlightening, with none of the partisanship which the Commons usually displays. This was a new way of doing politics. A one-off or the shape of things to come? That probably depends on who emerges as the next leader of the Conservative Party. And sadly the signs are not encouraging. Mrs May's offer to sacrifice herself may turn out to be pointless.


Dark days in Brexit land

If a 'no deal' Brexit is ruled out, what next?

Revocation of Brexit on the horizon?

Could Brexit now be abandoned altogether?

Did May fundamentally misunderstand the Brexit referendum result?

Brexit Watch: What the Conservative Party really needs is a shift to the left



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