After party conference season, it will be vital for the Brexit tribes talk to each other

After party conference season, it will be vital for the Brexit tribes talk to each other

After a vote that divided the country almost down the middle, the full gamut of post-referendum emotions are on display during the party conferences: from despair and anger to exhilaration at the result; and from apprehension to bullish confidence about the future. The problem is how rarely these perspectives will encounter each other. This autumn, each of Britain’s referendum tribes are still mostly talking to themselves about what happened in June, with two pro-Brexit and three anti-Brexit conferences – but little discourse between them.

Ukip held the conference for those who can’t quite understand why we are still in the EU when we voted to leave it three months ago. The party said goodbye to Nigel Farage, who already looks like an ex-leader with half an eye on a comeback, while new leader Diane James must now help her party adjust to the unusual experience for an insurgent populist party of having got what it wants. This time next year, Ukip may well be complaining that it isn’t getting a fast or hard enough Brexit and arguing for a deeper shade of purple.

The Lib Dem event in Bournemouth was the gathering for those for whom flying the EU flag after the referendum now brings a lump to the throat and a tear to the eye. Tim Farron tried to explain that he respects the democratic decision of the referendum but still wants to reverse the mistake that was made. His call for a new referendum on the deal is not, he argues, a call to re-run the last one – though he would use a second referendum to once again campaign to Remain in the EU. That distinction, between the decision to leave and the choice of the next destination, is unlikely to be heard unless the Lib Dems and other pro-Remain allies set out which forms of Brexit they would be prepared to reluctantly support and which, outside the single market, they would oppose.

The SNP conference is the event for those who believe you can never have too many referendums.  They will insist that the majority verdict of Scots to stay in the EU is respected, while working on the strategy to overturn the majority verdict of Scots to stay in the UK two years ago.

Nicola Sturgeon has played a confident role since the referendum, but has not seen the Scottish pro-Remain majority shift the dial on independence. This appears to be largely because Yes and No voters were equally likely to be among the four in ten Scots who voted Leave: pro-EU switchers to Scottish independence in Europe have been offset by working-class Brexiteers who voted Yes. Rather than catalysing the case for independence, Brexit has complicated it, especially on the central question of a currency and economic plan. So we can expect Nicola Sturgeon to keep playing the long game on independence and to identify what Scotland might get from Brexit.

Labour in Liverpool was the place to go if you wanted to see how those who almost entirely agree on Brexit can disagree on just about everything else. This is the only party conference with bigger things on its mind than Brexit. The party was almost united for Remain but its factions differ over whom to blame for the defeat: David Cameron for calling a referendum, or Jeremy Corbyn for not putting enough energy into winning it.

Corbyn’s agnostic Euroscepticism makes this, ironically, the only issue on which he is mostly out of touch with his party yet closer to the views of the general public. So his re-election is a blow for those in Labour who don’t accept that the referendum can’t be reversed, given Owen Smith’s promise to give the voters the chance to make sure they were sure. There has also been a striking outbreak of post-Brexit pragmatism on the party’s moderate flank – with the centre of gravity shifting towards seeking to defend the single market while accepting that there will have to be substantial changes to free movement.

The Conservatives will hold the conference for those who will be running the country for the foreseeable future – an unusual reward for the collapse of the Cameron Government’s European and economic strategy within a year of its 2015 majority victory. That is one reason why Theresa May is clear that hers is a new government.

The Conservative Birmingham conference will be the most politically mixed: the members voted by 60-40 to Leave, while a narrow majority of MPs voted to Remain. Yet even here, the economic and political debates risk running on parallel tracks. The ex-Remain majority of MPs may well keep their heads down, beyond acknowledging that Brexit means Brexit, so that the public fringe debates are dominated by the majority who favour a quick and clean break to make the running. At breakfast and lunch seminars, business guests will earnestly pick over the technocratic details to make the case for an orderly Brexit, with stability and as much business as usual.

The Government has said that it wants to build a national consensus around Brexit  but without giving a ‘running commentary’ on its position for the negotiations – which makes it quite hard to know what the consensus might try to coalesce around. In any case, Britain’s negotiating cards are already face up on the table and European governments can see what the core points are: that the UK wants to seek as much market access as possible but will not find it politically possible to accept free movement on its current terms and that it will want to make its own trade deals.

There will be a lot of devil in the detail, but a majority across the UK political spectrum would like a positive relationship within those constraints. They would, however, not take up a ‘take it or leave it’ deal which, to the public, was indistinguishable from EU membership. The defeated Remain minority would, of course, be happier with that but it is not going to be a deal that a May government will want to recommend.

Then there is the potential for so-called ‘Hard Brexit’ – leaving without any deal, to trade under WTO rules – which could yet be the default option, perhaps by accident rather than design if the two-year negotiation clock runs out. If there is a deal to be done, it will be enormously challenging to put both the British and the Europe-wide politics of doing it together. Everybody is talking about the need to reach out to both sides of the referendum vote, but invariably only doing so among their referendum campaign allies.

When the political tribes return from their respective conferences, the prize of shaping Brexit may well go to those willing to come out of the trenches dug during a polarising referendum campaign, and to seek to build the future alliances that could yet determine the as-yet-unwritten script for what Brexit may turn out to mean.