Brexit policy is the greatest challenge facing the governing Conservative Party, which has dominated British politics since the early 20th Century. Is the party ready to establish a firm position on Brexit? Can that policy satisfy the party base and bring the party to electoral success? The lack of a clear policy is hurting the party tremendously with voters. Polls now suggest, the issue could entirely upend Britain’s prevailing two-party system in favour of smaller parties that have taken a more solid position on Brexit.
Parliament on the Edge
In June of 2016 British voters went to the polls to decide whether the United Kingdom should leave the European Union. The majority chose to depart the EU by a 52% to 48% vote. Then pro-EU Prime Minister David Cameron resigned when his policy failed with the electorate. Theresa May won the Conservative Party leadership election and took office as PM. Seeing the narrow margin of the vote she attempted to negotiate a “soft Brexit” whereby the UK would leave the EU politically, while mostly remaining within its economic boundaries. Brexiteers have argued that this means the EU would continue to have influence over the British economy even as the British would no longer hold influence in the EU. On several occasions her Brexit deal has been voted down by overwhelming majorities in the House of Commons. Unable to see a successful policy through to completion, she recently announced her resignation as PM.
A leadership contest within the Conservative Party is already under way and will intensify as it nears a conclusion in July. Candidates include pro-Brexiteers like Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, and moderate Brexiteers like Jeremy Hunt and Sanjid Javid, who are more establishment candidates. During his recent visit, Donald Trump seemed to endorse Boris Johnson suggesting that he “would make a great Prime Minister.” Long thought of as a loose cannon, Johnson is not the favorite of the Conservative Party establishment. Johnson supported Brexit from the start and if selected now, his tenure in office would suggest the UK will take a policy of “hard Brexit.” Will the Tories (a semi-pejorative nick-name for the Conservatives) choose him to lead the party? While I have my own reservations about a Boris Johnson premiership, he seems to be the only leader with the experience to be PM and the conviction to complete the Brexit.
The Labour Party, Britain’s traditional left party in the 20th Century, has come under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn is an uninspiring leader who is a passionate supporter of socialism and a confirmed anti-Semite. Corbyn has established solid control over his party, but he has likewise attempted to straddle the Brexit issue without taking a clear stand either way. The most he has been willing to support is a second referendum on Brexit. British voters are unconvinced and Labour’s support is bleeding to the eco-communist Green Party and the centre-left Lib-Dems.
The Turning of the Tide
Recent election results and polls demonstrate the power of a clear position on Brexit. Since the UK has not formally left the EU, the British participated in the recent EU elections. Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party won the largest bloc of voters. Farage has been an outspoken advocate of Brexit right from the start; he was the face of the Leave campaign in 2016. Farage is a force that cannot be ignored.
The Conservative Party had a dreadful result in the recent European elections, its worst electoral defeat in nearly a century. The Conservatives were fifth among the national parties, in the single digits. Labour also had a poor showing coming in third behind the Lib-Dems. All told, the pro-Brexit and anti-Brexit political forces in the election were about evenly matched. The caveat should be added that turnout for the election was around 37% nationally, but the results seem to reflect the national feeling politically.
In the wake of the election, polls for a potential Westminster election (an election for the House of Commons – the key house of Parliament) are now showing the Brexit Party again in first place with the potential to win hundreds of seats. In at least one, albeit unlikely scenario, the Brexit Party could supplant the Conservatives as the main right wing party. It should be noted that no election is scheduled in the UK until May of 2022, but an early election could result if the Conservative government proves unable to govern according to the popular weal. If the Conservative Party does not choose a strongly pro-Brexit leader like Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party could be a serious threat in a future election.
On the left, the Greens are gaining ground among more radically left-leaning voters who seem to lack confidence in Corbyn. Other left-leaning voters are turning away from Labour to the Lib-Dem Party which has taken a distinctly anti-Brexit position. Again, taking a position one way or the other seems to be boosting these parties in the polls. The Lib-Dems are the union of two smaller political parties: the old Liberal Party and the Social Democratic Party that split from Labour to oppose socialism. In 1988 the two parties merged in order to seek stronger electoral opportunities. The Liberal Party was at one time the main left party in the UK. Many prominent 19th Century Prime Ministers were Liberals including John Russell, the Viscount Palmerston, and William Gladstone. Lord Herbert Asquith was the last Liberal Prime Minister in the years leading up to the First World War. Winston Churchill was also formerly a Liberal, but made his political comeback with the Conservatives in the mid-1920’s.
The Lib-Dems gained considerably during Prime Minister Tony Blair’s New Labour era (1997-2010) by running both to the right and to the left of the centrist Blair. In 2010 a hung parliament resulted wherein no party held a majority. The Conservatives led by David Cameron formed a coalition with the Lib-Dems then led by Nick Clegg; coalition governments are a rare novelty in British politics. This coalition lasted the full five years of that parliamentary term and led to the Parliamentary Reform Act of 2011 that set fixed five-year terms for the House of Commons. In 2015 the Lib-Dems fell from popularity and some thought to write the party’s epitaph. The Lib-Dems have regained momentum as an anti-Brexit party in recent years. Those Britons who wish to remain in the European Union are increasingly turning to the Lib-Dems. They seek a new referendum on the question, but it is not at all clear that the Remainers will win the plebiscite if it is held. At least one recent poll gave the Lib-Dems the lead in elections for the House of Commons, although the Brexit Party now holds the first-place position.
The future of British politics now hangs on this one inescapable but highly complex issue: Brexit. Everything now balances upon that fulcrum: either a party is for or against it. British voters are far less concerned with other matters are the moment. The Brexit Party and some Brexiteer Conservatives are seeking a “hard Brexit” wherein, upon reaching a forthcoming October deadline, Britain would simply leave the European Union with no agreement as to how it will relate to the EU afterwards. If that takes place it will mean some economic turmoil and consternation.
The British government has made plans to lower tariffs to zero in the hope of fostering greater trade. The UK will continue to have a strong trading relationship with its former colonies and dominions and with the sympathetic United States. During his recent visit President Trump seemed eager to negotiate a new trade deal with the UK with an eye towards easing a hard Brexit. But it is the UK’s relationship to Europe, its immediate neighbors, that makes the greatest difference economically. Following a hard Brexit, the UK would have to begin anew negotiating its future economic relationship with Europe, but from its place outside the supranational organization. At this point, all other contingencies have been exhausted. The UK either leaves or remains with the EU.
The Conservative Party needs to make its choice and take a firm position on Brexit. Now is the time for the Tories to choose a pro-Brexit leader and go the path of hard Brexit. This would be the party’s path to resurrection. If the Tories turn away from Brexit and try to remain, it will split the party and lead it to future electoral defeat. Boris Johnson may not be the favorite of the establishment, but he is a strong leader who can lead the party through Brexit. The Conservatives should have made a stand for hard Brexit at least a year ago. If the Tories fail to take up the mantle now, they may soon find their days as the ruling party of the UK at an end.
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