I told Theresa May’s Chief of Staff there was no Brexit compromise that would satisfy everyone. If only he’d listened…

I told Theresa May’s Chief of Staff there was no Brexit compromise that would satisfy everyone. If only he’d listened…

In those early months after the 2017 General Election, I was invited to Number 10 to talk about my thoughts on things, including Brexit, by Gavin Barwell, the Prime Minister’s newly appointed Chief of Staff, after losing his Croydon Central seat. I said to him that Brexit had redrawn ‘party lines’. In this new context it was clear – and the European elections have again shown – that the Right/Left spectrum was now less relevant than the Leave/Remain one.

We had to examine our ‘core vote’ on that basis and view it as it was, not as it used to be. We had done well in seats like Mansfield – traditionally working-class and strong Labour areas – and lost in more middle-class Remain areas. Although the latter might traditionally be considered part of the Conservative ‘base’, that just didn’t ring true any more and we needed to think about why.

I said that there was no compromise that would keep both Remainers and Leavers happy. It’s a binary choice. You can’t be “out” in a way that keeps people who don’t want to Leave happy, whilst also satisfying Leave voters that their wishes have been fulfilled. It’s impossible. We had to Leave first, and then we could rebuild the coalition. I felt that the majority of Remain voters would accept that democracy wins the day if we showed a clear direction.

As a party we held the referendum, we promised we would respect the result and we said in our manifesto that we’d sort it out. There was only one side we could pick – Leave – and we could not hope to both win more Mansfields and win back the Croydons for as long as Brexit remained the key issue. We had to leave first and then get back to domestic politics, no messing about or fudging it, accepting that your ‘core vote’ might be different come the end of the process.

It’s likely that having been the party of Brexit, that ‘base’ of Tory votes would continue to shift towards the working-class, Leave-voting Midlands and North. That’s the natural outcome of the path we had forged up to that point, and there was no changing it now. We had already lost some Remain support in the election, so there was no benefit in pivoting and annoying Leavers too. We can get back to speaking to both in due course, but you can only go for broad appeal once you’ve finished the divisive job of Brexit.

Needless to say, Gavin disagreed with my analysis…

He felt that we should be a broad church, and that in order to win elections we needed to always appeal to both. Honestly, I didn’t disagree at all with the broad point, our issue was about the schedule. I felt that if you tried, under the Brexit banner, to appeal to both then you would simply please nobody. And it turns out I was absolutely right.

Now, though, we have a chance to reset things. October 31st, come what may, must be the end. Hopefully with that firm decision on the table, there is an incentive for the EU to improve their offer, but they may not move on it. We still need to leave. Some people won’t like it, it’s a divisive subject and any course of action will lead to some dissent; but leaders are there to lead and take decisions, not to fudge and delay. It’s a hallmark of Theresa May’s administration that it has dodged the big political decisions. People want a government that believes in something, makes the case and delivers – not one that constantly backs down to pressure because it doesn’t have the courage of its convictions.

Even after totally damning European election results, its shocking how many colleagues still don’t see the problem with trying to compromise down the middle, just as Mrs May did. It’s mad how many still don’t see that giving up on all of our promises from the last three years will be the end of us all. Trust is key in politics, and we have lost it. Breaking more promises will not win it back. Those saying they won’t endorse leaving without an agreement (and in doing so preventing us from having any chance of getting a better deal) should recognise their approach leads only to ‘no Brexit’.

They also need to recognise that ‘no Brexit’ is not a return to life pre-2016. There is too much water under the bridge. No Brexit now means the end of our political structures as we know them. It leads to civil unrest even, as is becoming a common occurrence across the Channel. I wonder just how much preparation government has done for ‘no Brexit? ‘. What is the cost of blockades by protestors at ports and airports? What it the cost and risk of protestors flocking at government buildings? Not leaving is simply not an option.

With a new leader, a clear approach, and a timely exit from the EU, we can get permission to move on and talk about domestic issues again. In a straight fight between a proper Conservative government with strong leadership and a Labour Party still divided and unsure what it believes in, we will win the day. But that clear contest is far from guaranteed. The next few months and the decisions we take about leadership are key to our survival as a party.