Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Monday 29 January 2018

Will the Conservative party ever recover from Brexit?

I am sure many sensible Conservative MPs and supporters hope that once we leave the EU, the nightmare of Brexit will pass, and they can continue to be the natural party of UK government. They know that Brexit is an advanced form of irrationality, but they hope that once the Brexiters have achieved their goal the fever will pass and it will be business as usual. In particular they can elect as their leader someone who has both an appeal to voters and an ability to take sensible decisions, neither of which Theresa May or her Brexiter usurpers is capable of.

This Brexit syndrome, which infects nearly half the Conservative party MPs and most of its membership, is a visceral dislike of the EU in all its manifestations. I am not talking about why most voters chose to leave, which was an unfortunately all too familiar reaction to a public campaign that has blamed immigrants for every grievance and fear they have. Brexit syndrome is instead manifested in a belief that you must leave a customs union with your overwhelmingly biggest trading partner so you can seek inferior trade agreements with other more distant countries. The only explanation for that belief is a deep irrational dislike of all things EU.

For those Conservative MPs not subject to Brexit syndrome I have bad news. Leaving the EU as planned is not a cure. The nightmare of Brexit will not pass. Whatever deal the UK eventually concludes with the EU, it will be unacceptable to the Brexiters. Only a clean break with all things EU will satisfy them.

Many people still write as if the nature of the final deal is still wide open, ranging from Canada to Norway, and they are encouraged to do so by the government and to an extent by the EU. But this, like the government’s position, seems to me to ignore the political imperatives. One of these imperatives is the agreement the UK has already signed, which precludes a hard Irish border. There is no good reason why the EU will go back on that agreement. Yes of course the EU is quite capable of ignoring the wishes of one of its smaller members if that conflicts with the wishes of the majority, but that is not true in this case. The Irish border problem forces a deal that involves the UK staying in the customs union and at least parts of the single market, and that is the type of deal that most of the actors within the EU would also like.

It is only a matter of time before this reality becomes clear to Conservative party members, most of whom are infected with Brexit syndrome. That will be the point at which Brexit MPs will feel confident enough to challenge for the leadership. They will have a powerful song to sing: how we are still obeying rules set in Brussels, but without any say in what those rules are. No sovereignty of the simplistic kind that appeals to nationalists, and no ability to pursue all those wonderful trade deals that Mr. Fox was going to obtain for British business. If only politicians had had the courage to go for a clean Brexit, and had not been dissuaded from doing so by treacherous civil servants. There are plenty more verses with a similar theme.

If you keep wanting something that is so impossibly bad for the UK that no sane leader would ever enact it, then you can go on agitating for it forever. The Brexiters will not stop when we leave the EU, precisely because the terms under which we are almost certain to leave will give them even more cause to complain. Ironically leaving the EU makes the Brexit problem worse rather than better for the Conservative party.

There is no quick solution to this problem. If a Brexiter was able to capture the Conservative party leadership, they could only get their clean Brexit through parliament by achieving a Conservative landslide: that was what May hoped for and failed to get. As long as the Conservative party is in government, the chaos and fantasy politics that the UK has suffered since June 2016 will stay with us. Even if a Brexiter did not replace May, the party would be paralysed by Brexit syndrome to a degree that would make John Major’s difficulties seem trivial.

It seems to me that there is only one way the Conservative party can go. There is no cure for Brexit syndrome, so those that have it must become irrelevant. That requires a long period in opposition, like the period Labour suffered from 1979 to 1997. A period long enough for the current Brexit membership, plus defectors from UKIP, to be replaced by more sensible people who can see that a party that suffers from Brexit syndrome is a party that can never govern effectively, and which is always in danger of doing the country great harm. 

It says a lot about so much of our political commentariat that so many words have been written in horror about how Labour is ‘suffering’ from an influx of new idealistic members who just want to make things better, while so few have been written about the very real danger caused by a moribund Conservative membership that just wants to break off all relations with our nearest neighbours.


  1. All written here is true,These idiots have destroyed a great country.They live in the era of empire,They are not just against EU but anything and anybody from another country.Imagine how sad it is.We have to have ten to twelve years of Labour and Bolshevik government then when all these old foggies have passed away we can return to real leadership.With Gods help there will be more MP,s like Tom Turgenhart .It show how evil they are selling brexit info .Did you read and see that,Why can an old man like Mr Lilley need more money at his advanced years.

  2. Do you think any Brexiter Tories would be willing to solve the Irish border problem by simply surrendering Ulster to the Republic of Ireland?

    1. Any of them willing could not succeed, because there is no border "problem" other than impact on north-south trade (but preserving trade with GB is 3 times as important). There is no terrorism threat, and none has been made (customs posts are crowded by civilian bystanders by their very nature).

      There cannot be a united Ireland without the consent of the people of NI in a referendum, and that is a treaty commitment of the UK. If it was done without a referendum, there would be large scale bloodshed. "Ulster will fight and Ulster will be right!"

    2. Ulster is 9 counties. 3 were excluded from gerrymandered NI to try to create a Protestant State For A Protestant People to rule an apartheid statelet as they wished. Sadly for the supremacists still in the business of denying equality there will be a nationalist majority in 2021, and it will just get larger after that. Most of Ulster is already Irish. Soon NI will be too. Hardly worth the trouble is it?

  3. "It seems to me that there is only one way the Conservative party can go. There is no cure for Brexit syndrome, so those that have it must become irrelevant. That requires a long period in opposition, like the period Labour suffered from 1979 to 1997."

    Is that parallel not made more pertinent by the fact that one of the reasons why Labour spent so long in opposition was because during the late 1970s the party's thinking had gone down a nationalistic dead end, as exemplified by the Alternative Economic Strategy?

  4. In Orwell's notes on nationalism, central to each type of nationalism, is a fact to which the nationalist is blind: "BRITISH TORY: Britain will come out of this war [brexit] with reduced power and prestige."

    Twitter brexiters tend to either be extreme islamaphobes or have abstract fears about what the EU might do one day, but these motivations don't fit comfortably with (my idea of) an Etonian brexiter.

    (I imagine that) to them, the British empire is alive and well, as wealth inherited from it has had a profound influence on their standing in life. Their entire identity is so invested in this image of an invincible Britain running the world, it is impossible for them to imagine brexit being a disaster. And so in their view it can only be a success. And they cannot change their view, even when they experience the disaster, because to do so would contradict their entire identity.

    They will hate subservience to the EU], but out of arrogance rather than fear.

  5. You seem to equate Brexit voting with Tory voting. Let's recall that one third of Labour voters voted Brexit, just as 40% of Tory voters voted Remain - and that Labour is now lead by long standing Brexiters who see Brexit as (diretc quote) "a wonderful opportunity". If this were just a Tory obsession, it would be so much easier to see a way back to sanity.

  6. Email:

    Mini applications

    “There is no quick solution to this problem. If a Brexiter was able to capture the Conservative party leadership, they could only get their clean Brexit through parliament by achieving a Conservative landslide: that was what May hoped for and failed to get. “

    Surely the government could get its clean Brexit though parliament with the help of Labour as Corbyn’s leadership seems to be inching ever closer to firmly stating a desire to leave the single market?

  7. The Conservative Party as the natural party of government is not the historical fact Conservatives want it to be.

    Until the Great Depression it was the Liberal Party that had held power, and after the Second World War it was the Labour Party that drove consensus politics.

    So really we are looking to the period from 1979, with a civil war ongoing about Europe since the latter part of the 1980s.

    1. The UK's first-ever majority Labour government was elected in 1945. In the 73 years since then we have had 30 years with Labour in government and 43 years with the Conservatives.
      If the Con DUP's last until 2022, that 43 will become 47 years.
      (Incidentally, when Churchill's Conservatives won a 17-seat majority in the 1951 election---for a government which lasted until 1955---they actually got fewer votes than Labour.)

  8. "A long period in opposition" caused largely by Brexiteers is exactly what the Tories had between 1997 and 2010 after the Eurosceptics crippled Major's government. Tory modernisers during that period in the wilderness explicitly acknowledged that if the party was going to regain electoral credibility, it would have to "stop banging on about Europe." If a 13 year period of electoral irrelevance with a focused internal effort to suppress their influence didn't destroy the Brexiteers on the first attempt, why do you think another such period would succeed?

  9. Just to be clear, remaining in a customs union with the EU means maintaining freedom of movement, and that, according to the European Commission population report in 2013 means a UK population of 80million by 2050/60.

    This is not about disliking immigrants. It is about thinking that growing your population by 16 million, or 25%, in little more than a generation is a disaster for the country. It more or less ends the notion of the UK as an independent state. The increase in population alone is larger than the current population of Austria, of Belgium, of Sweden, of Greece, of the Czech Republic, of Portugal. It is absolutely massive.

    Would you, as a world class economist, care to comment on why this increase is necessary or desirable?

    1. Wrong -- Turkey is in a customs union with EU without having freedom of movement. It is the single market rather than the customs union which requires freedom of movement.

  10. I (almost) always enjoy reading your posts Simon, as I enjoy (almost) always reading Richard Murphy's posts. You both pretty much get it right coming from slightly different angles. Here though, I think you've got it spot on. The Tory party is in complete disarray, and this will not be resolved any time soon. And, judging by who is pushing Brexit, and the money behind it, I can't see it resolving even within 20 years. This post from Open Democracy will give an indication as to why I believe this:

  11. Good stuff! We need to look forward rather than back. I expect you might have heard this

  12. Thank you for a lovely article. I like Brexit syndrome - it's comparable with Stockholm...

  13. To be honest, it's difficult to see the Tories getting a 15-20 year spell in opposition to exorcise their Brexit demons. It would be good and it would be healthy as the party has in essence been held hostage by a rabid Europhobic (we should stop referring to them as "Eurosceptic" and call them for what they are) wing. If it was in opposition for such a spell, then internally, the non-Europhobic elements (Europhile and true Eurosceptics) would have a chance to win out over the Europhobes and turn the Tories back to a moderate course.

    Where it will get problematic however is that until at least December 31, 2020 the Europhobic wing of the Tories will have plenty of ammunition. In fact they will have even more ammunition come April 1, 2019 when the UK is fully out of the EU but still within the single market and customs union but now without a say. Rees-Mogg has banging on it already, the "vassal state" that the UK will become.

    I suppose a lot depends on the negotiated outcomes:

    1. If the UK and EU agree the transition deal and then begin negotiating the future trade deal in earnest (and not just the outline) come mid 2019 then if it looks like CETA instead of the transition deal (Single Market plus Customs Union) then that's going to scare a lot of businesses. It could lead to hard Brexit being postponed from 2019 to 2021 (assuming the deal is agreed before December 31, 2020). Hard Brexit occurs in time for New Year's 2021 and the economic disruption puts the Tories out of favour electorally. First up is the Scottish parliamentary elections in May 2021. With Hard Brexit actually occurring, the SNP should win handily on the back of Conservative meltdown ---> upshot is that the SNP could probably have very fertile ground for a second indy referendum and could win it (so Scotland out of the UK between 2021 and 2023). The disruptive effects are likely to be prolonged enough that come May 2022 the Tories will end up in opposition. But then can they really stay in opposition until 2037 or 2042? I think chances are good that they could be back in power 2032. After all by 2030 the electorate are likely to be tired of Labour government and want a change. And in any case by then the Brexiteers in the Conservative Party can be campaigning on how the EU has been holding Britain down even after exit and because of the way exit was conducted. In fact, they could very well blame the EU for both any economic disruption and malaise as well as any successful Scottish secession (which is likely to occur under a Labour government post-2022).

    2. If the UK and EU agree on a transitional deal but need more time to negotiate a final deal and then indefinitely extend the transition period then this is the best of all worlds for Brexiteers who like to feel victimized - they can now blame the EU for perpetuating vassalage on the UK. And if they lose in 2022, then they can go on blaming the Labour government for participating in the continued vassalage by turning (what they now consider) a well intended Tory move for a temporary transitional state, into a permanent status. Cue 2027 and they can have handy slogans like "no taxation (EU VAT) without representation (in the European Parliament and Council)" which can be used to gather the support of Europhile Tories hoping that the Tories have now had a change of heart and want to reapply for full membership AND the support of Europhobe Tories wanting a clean break from the EU (and yes, this can happen in the same way that Donald Trump's campaign messages were contradictory but it didn't matter as only the groups who were meant to absorb the messages did and those same groups ignored his other contradictory statements). As you have said repeatedly, the transitional state cannot be sustainable for very long but if Brexit has to occur, it is the least disruptive. Hence it will likely be extended again and again if FTA talks are dragging out. And hence it will become a lightning rod for Conservative anger and boost the Tories.

  14. Meanwhile there are peoples lives and jobs at stake. On present performance I believe the younger person with families will start the realise that all this grim economic reality is the fault of the Tories.
    Austerity has now really hit hard and with the local council rate increases kicking in April this year there will more problems for the Tories as well as realisation that too many businesses are being damaged. I dont think we have the luxury of sitting back and watching our country go down the pan.

    Too many people at the higher income end of reality will finally start to realise that enough is enough. They will not want to carry on with the Tory chaos and weaknesses that now manifest beyond Brexit to all walks of life.

    The amount of disinformation being broadcast by the Tories aided by the BBC and MSM has reached the point where nearly every utterance by some Tory minister or MP is debunked and proven to be lies and nonsense.

    I detect a shift in the peoples attitudes beyond the BREXIT hard line hysteria that hopefully will unhing the lot of them later this year.


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