What we are seeing in the UK right now is quite incredible. The referendum vote itself was quite something: people voting to make themselves poorer than they might otherwise be for some ill-defined notion of control or because of myths about immigration. But what has happened subsequently is even more extraordinary.
With a referendum vote so close, it would have been both natural and statesmanlike for the government to go with the majority in the most unifying way possible. The obvious way forward would have been to arrange a open-ended transition where we were out of the EU but still in the Customs Union and Single Market, leaving the government to see what it might be possible to negotiate as an alternative. In other words the policy the Labour party are currently suggesting. From the polls that seems to be what the majority of people want. Little would change for business, so this way forward from the vote would have caused only minor immediate economic damage.
Instead of this, it seems that the leaders of the Leave campaign have not just won that vote, but have effectively taken over the government, dictating not just the government's preferred terms and timetable of leaving but also taking away large chunks of power from parliament at the same time, Henry VIII style. A few brave Conservative MPs plea for parliament to be given just a minimal say in some of the most profound changes in the UK in decades, and their faces are put on the front page of the main ‘serious’ right wing newspaper under the headline ‘mutineers’.
How can this be happening in a country known for its pragmatism? It seems more like the revolution that happened 100 years ago, where the revolution’s leaders declare any doubt or deviation from the path they decide as treachery. Any suggestion that it might be to our advantage to conduct negotiations to Leave in a slightly different way is declared as nothing more than a plot to overturn the Revolution. At one stage business leaders had to pretend Brexit was going to be wonderful before they were allowed to talk to ministers. Anyone who dares to point out bits of reality that might get in the way of the one true path is a saboteur that really wants to overturn the will of the people. This is a regime in a democracy that seems at times more like a dictatorship.
How can this be happening? How can so few wield so much power? Why does the Prime Minister, who was a Remainer, now dance to the tune of the revolution's leaders? A referendum in which 52% of voters chose just to leave the EU, nothing more, cannot confer this kind of power. Even the right wing press are not that powerful on their own. The answer I think lies in a group of perhaps little more than 100,000 people, two thirds men and around half of whom are over 65. They are the membership of the Conservative party.
These members are far more anti-European than the party’s MPs or its current Prime Minister. The threat the Brexiters have, which Remain MPs fear and which has governed so many of the Prime Minister’s actions, is that they will force a leadership election. In any election a Brexiter is almost certain to be on the ballot that goes to party members, and given that electorate (and the influence the Tory press have on them) a Brexiter will almost certainly win. They will then go for a clean break from the EU, or what is commonly known as No Deal.
What else could explain a Prime Minister putting forward legislation involving a fixed date to leave that might make her own life more difficult, just because it was suggested (one might guess) by the editor of a right wing tabloid at his birthday party? Why else does she tolerate almost open insubordination by her foreign secretary that would in any other situation have led to him losing his job. Why is she so concerned about keeping her Brexiter ministers happy and as a result ignores the rest of her MPs and by now the majority of the country? She has focused all her energy on preventing a rebellion from her right and as a result has completely neglected the discussions with the EU.
Although the influence of Conservative party members is talked about a bit, I still find the contrast with Labour just a year or two ago extraordinary. Then all that political commentators could talk about was the malign influence that half a million Labour party members were having on the opposition party. Yet here we have a much smaller group of Conservative party members effectively holding the government, parliament, the Prime Minister and therefore the country hostage, during the most important period of UK politics in a generation. Will our political commentariat that are not part of this revolution please wake up.