The key lesson from the European Election for the new Government is that Brexit must be delivered by 31st October

The key lesson from the European Election for the new Government is that Brexit must be delivered by 31st October

Standing for election is always a great privilege, not least because of the way in which voters open up and share their views and experiences with you. Part of being a good candidate is listening to, and learning from, what they have to say. What one learns from these conversations is, of course, particularly important if the election in question does not give rise to the results that had been hoped for.

So, what lessons did I learn from the huge number of conversations I had with voters during the European election campaign, and what bearing do they have on the Conservative Party’s approach to Brexit as we get a new government this week?

In the first instance, I was deeply impressed by the fact that the country is not divided into two groups as is so often suggested: those who voted to Leave and who now want to Leave and those who voted to stay and who now want to stay. I encountered a third group which explained its position to me in words to the effect: ‘Well, to be honest, I voted to stay but a majority voted to Leave, so I think we should and can’t understand why we still haven’t.’

Perhaps there are more people who take this view in Wales because in 1997 we had a referendum to create the National Assembly for Wales which had a majority of less than one percent (50.3% to 49.7%) and yet it was still a majority and so, quite properly, was honoured within a year and a half. The Welsh majority for leaving the EU, by contrast, was around nine times greater. Given the keen sense of fair play that informs British identity generally, I suspect that this group actually has a significant presence right across UK, meaning that the majority wanting Brexit delivered should be more than 52%, and quite possibly substantially more.

In the second instance, my conversations with voters during the campaign convinced me even more of the need to deliver Brexit, albeit on this occasion for reasons that have nothing to do with Brexit per se. The logic for Brexit – the leave arguments of 2016 – remain undiminished, but I concluded the European campaign with an appreciation that the imperative for Brexit is now much greater than the case built merely on those arguments. In a context where people were told that this was a once-in-a-generation decision that Parliament was giving to them, it simply is not possible to turn one’s back on the referendum result without fundamentally fracturing our politics.

Although I am a committed Brexiteer, and believe that it will be much better for Britain in the round if we leave the EU, I don’t think the world would have ended had we voted to Remain, and clearly I don’t think it will end when we Leave. On the basis of my conversations during the European campaign, however, I do think that if Parliament decided not to respect the 2016 referendum result that in an important sense our political world would end. This breaking of faith would shatter our politics and bring incalculable damage.

The third thing I came to appreciate through numerous campaign conversations is that the British electorate is deeply imbued with the assumptions of single party majority government and finds it hard to accommodate parties dropping some manifesto commitments in order to get cross-party support for securing other manifesto commitments. The strength of these assumptions, which no doubt result from the fact that for the vast majority of our recent history we have enjoyed single party majority government, first made their presence felt in a way that somewhat took me aback in the aftermath of the 2010-2015 Coalition Government. No doubt many Lib Dems thought that sacrificing aspects of their 2010 manifesto, in order to get into government with the Conservatives, to deliver other aspects of their manifesto, made sense. Better to deliver some of your manifesto than none of your manifesto. The electorate, however, was not prepared to make that kind of trade-off and punished the Lib Dems severely at the ballot box in 2015 for reneging on key manifesto commitments like student fees.

During the European campaign I saw a not dissimilar dynamic at work in relation to the public standing of the Conservative Party in two interrelated ways:

First, while we did not contemplate a coalition with Labour, the prospects of talks with Labour in order to establish what was effectively a coalition of votes to get as much of Brexit through the current Parliament as possible (with the option of going back to the country to get a new mandate to finish the job off afterwards) caused widespread alarm. Although we would secure some of our objectives, the sight of our engaging in this strategy, and calling into question other manifesto commitments, like leaving the Customs Union, did not benefit us electorally in 2019 at the European election any more than it did the Lib Dems at the 2015 General Election.

Second, I also encountered an electoral difficulty in simply being a minority government. Put very simply, many people are not prepared to make any allowance for the fact that the Conservative Party runs a minority government and cannot force Parliament to adopt any course of action against its will. In their eyes, it would seem, our lack of a majority does not change the fact that we are the Government and people are consequentially as ready as ever to place the responsibility for government firmly at our door. This inevitably begs the question: to what extent is it in our long-term electoral interests to cling to minority government if we cannot deliver key commitments?

All the above considerations underline the imperative for our now leaving the EU as quickly as possible and certainly by 31st October. So long as we can rise to this challenge, the campaign conversations I had give me hope that Conservative voters will return to their first allegiance. If I had a pound for everyone who said to me. ‘I am sorry I simply can’t vote Conservative on 23rd May. I want to register a protest vote at our not leaving the EU on 29th March but will return to the Conservative Party in a General Election,’ I would be a rich man.

In this context, the imperative to leave the EU by 31st October is overwhelming. It means that if the incoming government concludes that it cannot deliver Brexit in the context of the current Parliament by 31st October, a General Election before that date – when one is in a stronger position, not having run out of options – would be much wiser than a General Election after 31st October. A later election, having failed to meet a second departure deadline, would mean facing the electorate from an even greater position of weakness than we did on 23rd May.