The Real EU Referendum Winner May Surprise You

Brexit is already causing the biggest shakeup of British politics for a generation. But the biggest loser may prove to have the last laugh

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David Cameron waves goodbye from Downing Street: Driven from office, but could he be the long-term winner of the referendum? (©GEOFF CADDICK/AFP/Getty Images)

The June 23 referendum has overturned half a century of cross-party consensus. The assumptions and presumptions of every area of public life have been shattered. The political landscape is transformed. The fundamental basis of British administration must be reassessed, realigned and renewed. Add your own preferred cliché here.

No, really, the referendum result is genuinely significant. Our masters, the electorate, have just junked the geopolitical strategy which has guided Britain since the Suez fiasco of 1956, i.e. the idea that the UK can’t go it alone. By anyone’s reckoning that is a Big Thing. But people were far more interested in the Olympic Games, which fortuitously landed a bigger-than expected haul of medals for Team GB, and in the short term there has been far more controversy over what happens with the Great British Bake Off. Yet if the Brexit vote isn’t quite up there in the same category as the fall of the Berlin Wall or 9/11 — and the jury is still out on that — it is going to have equivalent ramifications for British politics.

Of course, some Remainiacs would dearly love to reverse the referendum outcome. The chances of a second referendum are not trivial. There will have to be another EU Treaty at some point, if only to sort out the eurozone. With the British example in everyone’s minds, the nuisance value of a government holding the process to ransom has rocketed. Britain is not the only country with doubts about the free movement of people. Most likely, the EU will loudly trumpet that free movement is a sine qua non of EU membership, and then quietly discover that of course nobody ever meant it to mean XYZ. It is not unreasonable to assume there will be a relaxation of the EU grip, probably on terms that Brussels should have offered David Cameron in the first place. Assuming that the Commission is capable of learning from experience (a dangerous assumption), it could be arranged for this new Treaty to be thrashed out in parallel with the Brexit negotiations and the completion of both to be synchronised, before the 2020 UK general election.

So we can imagine Sir Humphrey quietly whispering to the Prime Minister that while, of course, the 2016 result must be respected, that was a vote to leave an EU which no longer exists, and it is only prudent to offer the public a chance for second thoughts. And if Sir Humphrey doesn’t do so, because he thinks the Prime Minister will tell him to take a running jump, the idea will certainly occur to the inmates of the left-liberal retirement home known as the House of Lords who will have a veto over any Brexit legislation and will claim that the only way to break the deadlock between them and the Commons is a democratic tie-breaker. Good luck with that.

But while the prospect of a second referendum is not negligible, there is nearly zero chance of a different outcome. If the pro-EU movement couldn’t win in 2016, with the leadership of the four largest parties behind them and the government machine bending the rules in their favour, they certainly won’t do so in 2018 or 2019, telling the voters they have been naughty children, with a Conservative Government (one eye on a forthcoming general election) wholly committed to whatever Brexit turns out to have meant. Who on earth is going to volunteer for an Opt-Back-In campaign? A second referendum would be Darwinian natural selection, removing from the political gene pool anyone too stupid to notice when the voters have sent them a message.

From now on, Brexit means Brexit, even if we don’t know what Brexit means, and that will completely reshape British politics. A good analogy is with the Cold War, the last existential question facing this country. From the late 1940s to the early 1990s quite a few active politicians did not want to be in Nato, did not want to be allied with America, and a fair-sized contingent would not have objected if the Russians had got here and carried out some of their trademark domestic reforms. But anyone advocating any of those positions simply marked themselves out as unfit for public office. It was Clement Attlee, after all, who first banned Communists from the civil service. From the perspective of today, British politics after 1945 can be seen as being largely a dispute about economics, as to where the boundary between the private and public sectors ought to lie. The differences seemed more extreme at the time than now. No one with any hope of actually getting elected offered voters a Soviet-style command economy or proposed to join the Warsaw Pact.

Equally, today there is a potential “Fifth Column” of figures in public life who would much rather that Britain remained a fully participating member of the EU. Like Edward Gibbon, who “sighed as a lover but obeyed as a son”, they will sigh as Europhiles but obey the referendum result as careerists. There will be long, tedious arguments about what the nature of the UK-EU relationship should be, or if being Out is really any different from being In. On the fundamental point, no room for any doubt: Britain will be out of the EU.

That is going to have a seismic impact on British politics. But such earthquakes do not always have the consequences everyone expects. Again, the Cold War is our precedent. As the Berlin Wall came down a great deal of self-congratulatory right-wing comment from self-congratulatory right-wing commentators suggested that not only Communism, but socialism too, was now just so much rubble and dust. Some people even discerned the End of History. And what actually happened? Geopolitically, History has been breaking out all over the place with a vengeance ever since. In British politics, the winner of the post-Cold War was the Labour Party. Or to be more precise, what Tony Blair turned the Labour Party into. Which is as much to say that the real winner was Blair himself.

If Margaret Thatcher can be said to have “won” the economic argument by 1990 — not a question which is easy to answer — then Tony Blair achieved a comprehensive victory in the culture wars which followed. Blair’s victory has proved to be more profound. Rhetorically conceding the case about taxation, and even privatising the odd forgotten arm of the state, Blair made the great discovery that it didn’t matter who owned the commanding heights of the economy, but what the regulations said. So, armed with a Chancellor who could craft a dozen stealth taxes before breakfast, and a raging global boom to smother discontent, Blair created a post-modern government obsessed with symbols, gestures, triangulation and spin.

He so succeeded in painting his opponents as “weird” that eventually even the leader of the Conservative Party was describing himself as the “heir to Blair”. Public dissent from the glories of multicultural, diverse, inclusive and, above all, “modern” Britain became the fast track to political suicide. Whether British society in its completeness ever really changed is beside the point. What mattered was what could be said and done in public. There remain large sections of institutional Britain where Margaret Thatcher might as well never have been born. Blair’s was a world view which claimed to be confident and relaxed, inclusive and tolerant at home (well, except towards the old-fashioned and intolerant, of course) while engaged with the wider world (even if, by the end, it was engaging parts of that world through Tornado fighter-bombers). Certainly not a country which had pulled up the drawbridge. In fact, the absence of a drawbridge turns out to have been a significant design flaw.

This is the political framework which went crashing down in flames on June 23. We now know that a majority of the people who can be bothered to vote on the question do not want to be part of an international organisation if it means loss of national control over key areas, most obviously over who is allowed to come and live here. It does not matter that we already have something like an “Australian-style points system” (albeit for non-EU citizens) or whether there is no evidence that such an approach would actually cut the headline number of immigrants. It does not matter that the public services as currently structured are unsustainable without a rising population, and that this has to be imported since we aren’t making enough of it ourselves. It certainly does not matter that no one is entirely clear about what the people are for as opposed to against. The EU has become a symbol of everything which makes a voting majority disgruntled about the world. So, as a symbol, it has to go. The perfect apotheosis of Blairite gesture politics.

What comes next? Let us speculate wildly. Without the EU, Britain needs to find another approach to, in so many words, dealing with foreigners. Which basically means deciding what to do about globalisation and its discontents. By no means all the 52 per cent who voted to Leave correspond to the stereotype painted by the Remain campaign, of being elderly, frightened or angry about modernity. There was a perfectly respectable free trade, shock-therapy case for exiting the EU, and it received an occasional airing during the referendum. For that matter, a significant element of the support for the EU has always been a desire to build a Fortress Europe to lock out the cold winds of an unfriendly world. But clearly a large segment of the winning majority, especially those who do not usually turn out for a general election, were waving a massive two-fingered salute to business-as-usual.

There is now a ready market for an anti-globalisation party, in a way that there hasn’t been before. Unfortunately, at the moment the chess pieces are all on the wrong squares. This New Party could be fashioned from, say, the Tim Farron wing of the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the Northern “Red UKIP” faction, possibly the nationalists in the Celtic fringe, and of course some non-Blairite parts of the Labour Party. However, that would require each of these components to jettison a core belief — I’m sorry, I mean, to listen to the message of the voters and respond in a spirit of humility.

What would come out of the other end of the sausage machine would be a party that was protectionist, certainly far more interventionist in the economy than we have become used to, and possibly even corporatist — but it probably won’t advocate wholesale renationalisation (apart from the railways as a visible gesture) because there won’t be any money for that, and once they’ve replaced the regulators they won’t need to,  anyway. Expect them to be opposed to most forms of private development. The New Party will also be culturally conservative, placing a great emphasis on cohesive community values. There will be sharp internal debates about the extent to which it wants to be socially conservative. It will probably decide not to launch a full-scale war against lifestyles it disapproves of, but it will have a definite policy about Muslim radicalisation, and it will be very popular.

With an ancestry hailing from “the Left”, this New Party ought to call itself the Progressive Democrats, if only because, in the way of these things, its programme will not be terribly progressive, and it probably won’t be too interested in democracy. Electorally, its prospects look quite good on paper, particularly wherever (outside London) there is a directly-elected mayor. It would pick up support from some of the churches and, on a good day, make inroads into the golf club Tories. But there are two major stumbling blocks.

The most obvious is the formidable barriers to the creation of a new political party. UKIP has been going for nearly a quarter of a century, telling us that a majority of people agreed with them. It turns out that they were right all along, but the only parliamentary seat they have won at a general election (Clacton, 2015) was a personal vote for a very impressive candidate, Douglas Carswell, who would have been returned if he had been standing on a Flat Earth Society ticket. Barriers are not just created by the electoral system, although it won’t help the New Party if it launches in competition with Labour, UKIP, the Lib Dems, Greens, etc.

As with any profession — airline pilot, brain surgeon — it takes a long time to build up the experience of how to run a political party and fight election campaigns, and above all a certain maturity of attitude while you are doing so and getting beaten continually. Aside from choosing defective strategies, UKIP have simply never managed to hold the same team together for long enough without an enormous internal hissy fit breaking out, followed by purges and defections.

A practical solution to this problem is to not set up a New Party at all, but to take over an existing one. The obvious candidate is Labour. They have the most extensive network and infrastructure, the best collective campaign experience and brand loyalty among the “genetic Labour vote” (I vote Labour, my dad voted Labour, my grandad . . . , etc). But here we reach the second obstacle. The Labour Party.

Jeremy Corbyn was elected (and re-elected!) Labour leader on the premise that there is a vast untapped resource of non-voters, alienated by superficial spin-doctor politics, yearning for someone to give them a dose of the old time religion and challenge the system. I would expect that the gang around him feels vindicated by the June referendum. There was an unexpectedly high turnout, driven by habitual non-voters. No one can doubt Corbyn’s opposition to globalisation. Nor, from his pathetic performance during the campaign, that he didn’t really like the EU much. He can point to the remarkable surge in Labour Party membership under his tenure as further evidence. Here, you might think, is the very living embodiment of the New Party. And you would be utterly wrong.

Corbyn cannot deliver this New Party. He’s having enough trouble holding Labour together, and does not seem to be putting much effort into doing so. Oh, he may well be attracted by some of the economic message which this New Party will proclaim. But from now on, cultural issues are going to be important. The New Party’s putative supporters are revolting just as much against Corbyn’s social agenda as against the EU. The decisive shift in the referendum came with the heavy movement of Labour supporters in the North and in the West Midlands, “disobeying” their party’s instruction to vote Remain, and it was swelled by Corbyn’s admission a week before polling day that he saw no reason to limit immigration. Doh!

To all intents and purposes Labour has been taken over by an outsider and reorientated already, in precisely the wrong direction. Corbyn isn’t Old Labour. Yes, he has swept up all the overlooked flaky lefties into a party none of them really support. It’s made life an awful lot easier for whoever at MI5 is supposed to be keeping tabs on such figures. All that has to be done now is hack the Labour Party membership list. But Corbyn’s takeover hasn’t taken Labour any closer to power. A shotgun marriage of charity shop Trotskyists and ethnic identity shake-down artists has nothing to offer a middle-aged man (or woman) who feels his life is being shaped by faceless powers that refuse to listen to him or take his values seriously. From Corbyn’s perspective, left-wing Leave voters are trapped in a deluded “proletarian consciousness”, attached to fetishes like national pride. From the Leave voter perspective, Corbyn is trapped up his own backside, unattached to reality. When Corbyn refights the 1983 general election in 2020, he will have been on the wrong side of History twice in a single career.

What the New Party needs is a leader who can carry Labour supporters with him, and pick up the other angry factions (Lib Dems, Greens, Red UKIP), by being of his party whilst also transcending it. What it needs is, um, oh dear — it needs a Eurosceptic Tony Blair. Just at the point when Corbyn’s stormtroopers are lynching anyone who vaguely resembles Blair. And until this Eurosceptic Blair turns up, there won’t be a New Party — just lots of Old Parties going nowhere. How ironic.

We have been here before. By 1918 there was no longer any objective reason for the existence of the Liberal Party. The framework of politics pointed towards a contest between Labour, the then New Party, and the Conservatives, their natural opponent. But the damn Liberals just wouldn’t lie down and die, and their refusal to do so while that New Party was still learning on the job, plus the vagaries of the electoral system, led to two decades of oscillation between Labour minority governments and Conservative administrations with thumping majorities. No reason not to expect the same story now.

Politics abhors a vacuum. The crass incompetence of the anti-globalisation factions means that for the foreseeable future, power will naturally fall to the pro-globalisation party. This party will, of course, attract those who backed the Remain option, although nobody will commit the solecism of pointing that out. Nor will this party’s advocacy of globalisation be too strident. They will conduct themselves like Baldwin’s Conservatives did towards capitalism or Rab Butler towards the welfare state. Sensible chaps who can run things better than The Other Lot, making sure you and your family do not lose out, or not too much. So there’s another irony for you: the immediate beneficiaries of Brexit will be the people who lost the referendum. The pro-globalisation lobby will lean towards being economically liberal, and will undoubtedly be socially liberal. In the interests of “reuniting our divided society”, they will make regular token gestures — for example, threatening to force firms to disclose how many foreigners they employ (and then dropping the idea inside a week) — but, immigration apart, they will do as little as possible to upset Blair’s settlement. Remember: it’s the society, stupid.

They will call themselves the Conservative Party. They will be the Conservative Party. They will pick up the old “Orange Book” faction of the Liberal Democrats, who ought to have been in the Tory Party in the past and only became Lib Dems because of historical quirks. Nowadays, no Conservative would dare to advocate something like Section 28 to prohibit “the promotion of homosexual lifestyles”, and the EU will no longer be a divisive arguing point. In time, perhaps after the interval of a complete Parliament, these New Conservatives may even scoop up whatever is left of the Blairites, or whatever they will be calling themselves by then.

The Conservative Party’s fitness to take on this role has already been demonstrated by two acts of ruthless statesmanship. First, watching the descent into insanity of Corbyn’s Labour, with the MPs at odds with the membership, they concluded that, thank you very much, but no thanks. In what would have been a much closer contest than anyone will care to recall, the second-placed candidate to succeed David Cameron, Andrea Leadsom, fell on her sword and so handed the Prime Ministership to Theresa May. Second, Mrs May, having already unequivocally accepted the referendum result despite having campaigned against it, constructed her first cabinet by promoting three prominent Brexiteers and — far more importantly — staging a gratuitously public execution of equally prominent figures on both sides (George Osborne for Remain; Michael Gove for Leave). Bloodlust sated, if only for now, unity is strength.

But what sort of a Conservative Party will it be? Not a very Tory one, in its tone and manner. To execute its tricky manoeuvre of being simultaneously repentant Remainers and bashful Brexiteers, the leadership is going to have to pretend to be not very Tory at all. After all, no one thinks of Baldwin as a carpet-chewing libertarian, because he wasn’t, but he achieved his domestic objective of keeping out the socialists for 20 years. The prime objective of the New Conservatives will be to keep out the New Party. Be prepared for the worst: they’re going to feel your pain.

In her speeches to the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham Theresa May set out what has been described as both an uncompromisingly hard line on Brexit and an unrepentant lurch towards government interventionism. This was not her pitch to create the New Party. It was her attempt to stifle it before it is born. The criticism that this is Heath Mark II is probably not far wrong — she even copied Heath’s slogan of a “quiet revolution” — but misses the point. It’s actually old-style Clinton-Blair triangulation: a leader distancing herself from her minority core support (which, remember, for Mrs May was the Remain faction) and moving halfway towards the enemy. The only difference is that, thanks to the utter shambles of the referendum campaign, part of the group which the Prime Minister has to woo over is the membership of her own party. You might not consider the result to be very economically liberal, but it is the most economically liberal offering that is going to be available. Her references to “Global Britain” were probably aimed at you.

The logic of hard Brexit (if that is what we end up having) is a stark choice between the suffocation of a siege economy and the clinically cold shower of a brutally open, free-trade laboratory. But logic has very little to do with politics. Of course, what we will be offered is a selection of fudges somewhere in the middle. Mrs May has launched her bid to be the person who likes trading with foreigners a bit more than The Other Lot do, and who is going to throw more money at helping British businesses to compete with Abroad.

Some within the party’s ranks might argue that the weakness of the Opposition gives them a free hand. The last time Tories believed that, in the 1990s, they ended up with Blair. They will also have the awful spectacle of Jeremy Corbyn sitting opposite to remind them of what happens when you let enthus-iastic amateurs try their luck. Besides, there is no evidence that Tory Brexiteers have any clearer idea of what they really want out of Brexit than anyone else does.

So, what this New Conservative Party is going to get is a leadership approach which is, how can I put it, ah yes: Cameroon. Mrs May wants to seem as unlike Mr Cameron as possible. Very wise. She doesn’t “do” sunny optimism. She won’t hug huskies.  More niece to Heath than heir to Blair. But she has still steered her tanks straight towards the new centre ground, distanced herself from a straw-man “libertarian right”, and blathered on about “change”, and “the few”, and “the many”, in the way that Cameron used to. His public school bromides about the Big Society and playing the game have had a grammar school reboot. Mrs May actually told us that she is heading for the centre, just like Cameron.

It’s a novel strategy, to lure your enemy into a trap by telling them what your plans are — and it’s going to work. Mrs May also signalled that she wants to keep on board all those new friends that David made. The Prime Minister seemed somewhat perfunctory in her praise of her predecessor. She singled out for approval his introduction of gay marriage. That has not received the attention it deserves. No surprise that in Birmingham she chose to brand Corbyn’s Labour as “the Nasty Party”.

And there is your last and bitterest irony from this most surprising year. By calling the referendum when he did, making an utter balls-up of it, trashing his reputation as a proven election-winner, and being driven early from office, David Cameron will have finally cemented the Conservative Party into a mould of his own making, in all likelihood for a generation. He is the Robert Peel of our times. The real long-term winner of the referendum. Damn him.