Brexit has accelerated a great realignment of British politics

Brexit has accelerated a great realignment of British politics

And so the dust has settled on the European election, the votes have been counted and the results are in. Now the bickering can begin about what it all means.

Of course, some had already made their minds up. On television on Sunday night I watched Heidi Allen declare that Change UK (TIG) had achieved marvels, while Alastair Campbell announced that it was a great night for the forces of Remain. Rather more plausibly, Nigel Farage said that he thought the Brexit Party had done rather well.

In truth, the European elections of 2019 are not going to turn out to have been very important in themselves. I am no longer an MEP for the East Midlands, but Annunziata Rees-Mogg is. The ECR grouping in the European Parliament is smaller than it was. Neither of these events is a political earthquake (with apologies to the no doubt highly capable Ms Rees-Mogg). But they are important as a signpost to greater things.

The results were all part of a much larger realignment of British politics that has been going on for some time. Brexit has accelerated the change and thrown it into turmoil, but in truth it is part of a bigger story. Many do not like the way that old certainties are being thrown out, but it is a thrilling time to be involved in politics.

For years now there has been a steady change in British politics. When I first joined the Conservative Party, the big divide in politics was economic. Did you support free markets (Conservatives) or socialism (Labour)? Were you middle class (Conservative) or working class (Labour)? The dividing lines were not precise and there was much crossover, but it was still possible for an old hand to simply look at a street and have a pretty good idea how most people living there would vote. No longer!

Over recent years there has been a change. Now those who depend on the state for a living are going towards Labour – even if they are relatively wealthy managerial types leading a middle-class lifestyle. They can afford to indulge in politically-correct navel-gazing about cis-genders, polar bear populations and ethnic labelling. Those who run their own show – self-employed plumbers, for instance – or those who work for smaller companies are shifting towards the Conservatives. It is for this reason that Labour has done well in London or in university towns such as Canterbury. And it is why Conservatives have done well in places such as Mansfield and Ashfield.

Of course, political tribal loyalties die hard. The old Labour vote in poorer, urban areas is persistent, as is the Conservative vote in the suburbs. But both are crumbling and have been for some years.

Also persistent are the attitudes of the upper reaches in both major parties. In the Conservative Party are some at senior level who are every bit as contemptuous of white van vulgarity as Labour’s Emily Thornberry. They want to heap taxes on the self-employed, subsidise opera and they despair at Brexit.

Which brings us back to our friend Brexit. Euroscepticism has for years been a useful ally for blue-collar Conservatives seeking to do well in traditional Labour areas. When I stood for Parliament in Bootle, it was almost the only issue that enabled me to connect with the local voters. Conservative MP Ben Bradley has explained how it helped him win Mansfield. It has also caused academics and senior public sector folk to drift away from the Conservatives – mostly to Labour or the Lib Dems.

The Brexit vote of 2016 threw all that into chaos. While Conservatives on the ground had been busily mining eurosceptic support, the upper reaches had comfortably ignored us. But in the wake of the 2016 vote, the Government had to decide what to do. Tragically, it decided to pursue a policy of implementing Brexit in a way that meant the UK did not really leave the EU at all but remained firmly in its orbit. The eurosceptic voters among the self-employed and small businesses who we had been gradually getting over to our side noticed, and concluded that the Conservatives could not be trusted. That lack of trust extended not only to Brexit, but spilled over into policies on tax cuts, firm law and order and low regulation.

Thus some in the upper reaches of the Conservative Party turned their backs on the chance to win over vast new swathes of voters because they wanted to remain in their comfort zone, appealing to a type of voter which was already leaving us. They believed that they could do this because the disaffected Brexiteers had nowhere to go. As late as January of this year, one of the grander pooh-bas among the Conservative MPs told me in all seriousness that Theresa May’s deal would go through, that euroscepticism would fade away and the UK would be back in the EU within five years. There was nothing that Brexiteers could do about it – he said – because all the upper echelons in all the big parties agreed on the future course for the UK.

And then along came Nigel Farage and the Brexit Party. All those voters suddenly had somewhere to go – and they went in vast numbers.

The Conservative Party now has to face up to facts. We can continue to embrace the shift in UK politics that has been going on for some time, or we can turn our backs on it to try to retain voters who are already drifting out the door.

As always, policy is key – but in the context of the coming Conservative leadership contest, personality is also important. And that contest puts massive responsibility on the shoulders of those of us who are Conservative Party members. We are about to decide who will be the most influential right-of-centre politician of our generation.

Depending on how we vote, that person will be either Boris Johnson or Nigel Farage.