Ignore Oliver Letwin – the Tories have nothing to fear from a no-deal Brexit

Ignore Oliver Letwin – the Tories have nothing to fear from a no-deal Brexit

Oliver Letwin was in the news on Tuesday night after he made an emotional Commons speech with some notable contents.

One eyebrow-raiser was his obviously daft statement that he was “past caring what deal we have” with the EU and would vote for one whatever it contained just to secure an orderly departure. It is not quite true so say that only an intellectual could say something so stupid, but nonetheless that part of his speech was easy to appreciate as and dismiss as meretricious drivel.

But, in my judgment, there was a second bit of nonsense too that this time takes a little more analysis to unpack. It was the notion that should the UK experience significant economic and other difficulties after a WTO Brexit, then the British public will inevitably blame the Conservatives and as a result the Conservatives will suffer dreadfully in elections for many years to come.

This was Mr Letwin’s effort to appeal to the self-preservation gene of inherently eurosceptic colleagues, no doubt based on a not wholly unreasonable view that not all of them are immune to considerations about their own ongoing personal political prospects.

Let me explain why I think he has it completely wrong on this score and why in fact the politics of “no deal” will work very well for the Tories (even if the economics are much bumpier than people like me predict they will be).

First off, if we have a no-deal Brexit on 29th March, nobody will be able to argue that this is because of a cavalier attitude from the Prime Minister. She has quite obviously bent over backwards to reach an agreement, in fact giving far too much of the Brexit vision away in the eyes of millions of Brexit voters.

A no-deal Brexit actually liberates us from the worst of her mistakes – agreeing to EU sequencing, making an unconditional pledge on the Irish border and legally committing to the farewell payment without getting the EU to legally sign up to their side of the bargain. Leaving with no deal takes us back to negotiating on level terms with the EU as its best customer. Ireland, on the other hand, is left in the weakest position.

Mrs May and the Tories will have ultimately opted – in a choice forced by Brussels – to prioritise patriotism over the wishes of the Big Business lobby. All of the Brexit-minded press will swing behind her – the Mail, Express, Sun and Telegraph. She will have faced down the EU bullies and, to be frank, only a few Remoaner wet lettuces are going to care about occasional shortages of certain fresh vegetables.

The British public always sides with a British Prime Minister standing up for our country in the face of bullying from abroad – whether by other individual nations or supranational bodies. It will do so again.

There will be an appetite for a “Buy British” campaign should the EU kick up rough at the borders. The resilience Brexit voters have shown in the face of multiple iterations of Project Fear will show itself again. And, crucially, this experience will also cast a searching light on the patriotic credentials – or lack of them – of the Leader of the Opposition.

At the 2017 election Tory hit jobs on Corbyn’s links with the IRA, Islamists and the rest did not gain traction because he was a plucky underdog fighting his corner in a contest called by a Prime Minister who dared not show her face in debates. But if in a contemporary crisis about Britain’s right to govern itself, Corbyn’s Labour appears on the side of the foreign bully boy, all his form for not being patriotic suddenly becomes relevant and telling.

Likewise, May’s obstinate and ponderous nature becomes a strength. She is wrapped in the flag. A point or two off GDP growth will not move the dial against her when the prize of national independence is being grittily secured. Without wanting to go the full Mark Francois, I merely observe that the collective national memory of what Britain does and must do in the face of bullying from a German-led continent is an extremely powerful and in fact unshiftable force.

Two-thirds of Tory-inclined voters are strong Brexiteers. It is the dithering that has turned them off in droves. They know leaving without a deal might be bumpy at first – how can they not when broadcast media has predicted everything from no medicine to no food to no jobs? Things might even actually be bumpy for quite a few months (though it is very unlikely when measured against the advance scare stories that the reality will be felt to be remotely terrifying). But nobody will think May has blithely gone for no deal without trying to avoid it by making reasonable compromises (as I must concede they might have done had Boris Johnson been Prime Minister).

Politically the downside of not leaving on 29th March as the Government has assured us we will from the off would be catastrophic for the Tories (as I spelt out in my last piece for this site).

The putative political downside of leaving – that economic dislocation leads to certain items being in short supply and some multinationals downscaling their operations in the UK and then that is transmitted into blame for the Tories and a surge for Corbyn – just doesn’t make sense.

The public mood is much more likely to be to flay the unpatriotic CEOs of said multinationals, whose reputation is not high in any case. The public have already indicated they think the upside of extra democracy and national accountability is worth any likely economic penalty. They have chosen the Brexit path with their eyes wide open.

Not doing it on 29th March would finally resolve in the eyes of most voters the question of which comes first for the Tories – love of country or love of money. It would tell Brexit voters that they do not count, are not respected and inhabit a nation in which the ruling class does not believe. It would also lead to Britain having either to take whatever appalling deal the EU was prepared to offer or inexorably to us not leaving at all. Britain would, as Lord Kerr predicted, have “come to heel” under a Tory regime.

So Oliver Letwin is quite wrong. In fact, I predict that the many blue collar voters in key Tory-Labour marginals will overwhelmingly break for No Deal and No Surrender.

There was a time, it is true, when the economic downside of a key Tory decision on European policy did cause the party a catastrophic and long-term loss of support. That was the ERM experiment. But in that case economic misery coincided with the surrender of national sovereignty for it involved, in effect, a UK commitment to shadowing the Deutschmark and thus giving up the ability to use exchange rate policy to promote Britain’s economic needs. Many people lost their homes and their livelihoods as a result.

So it is demonstrably true that if you impose an anti-patriotic policy and inflict severe economic hardship as a result, the electorate is going to give you a long spell in the cooler. But retaining, in fact regaining, sovereignty is a very different kettle of fish.

Even if the economic downsides to no deal turn out to be severe and protracted, British people would in my view overwhelmingly – and correctly – blame the intransigent EU and its partial blockades of our country. To the extent that they see it as an inevitable consequence of Brexit, the vast majority of those who voted for Brexit will also see it as a price worth paying.

So you are wrong, Oliver. No deal actually works beautifully for the Tories in a political sense. The party can even resolve internal splits by going for a patriotic election on the back of Brexit whenever it likes and allow the rump of anti-democrats in the parliamentary party who have tried to block it to be de-selected. My prediction is that their numbers will shrink very quickly indeed – I am still by the way awaiting the resignations of the “dozens” of ministers spoken about by George Obsorne’s London Evening Standard.

Follow this path and the communitarian, patriotic Tory Party with working class and provincial kerb appeal dreamt of by the likes of Nick Timothy will have been forged in a crisis.

Oh and the legions of Big Business will come back knocking on your door for a way in as they always do. This is one of the world’s most lucrative and profitable markets. The corporate class may not welcome having to find some new supply routes and do things a different way, but it will be in their financial interests to make those accommodations. And so they will do so.

They will also realise that while the Tory Party is no longer in their pockets quite as securely as it was, it is still a much better bet than those Marxists Corbyn and McDonnell who offer the one sure route to penury and economic chaos.

Politics is often a matter of judgment and time will tell who is right. But my view is that Oliver Letwin has got it completely wrong. And let me sign off by observing as gently as I can that if that does turn out to be the case, then it wouldn’t be for the first time.