The Tories’ Brexit obsession has no future in a changing Britain. They just won’t admit it
In December 2016, only six months after the Brexit referendum, there was a by election in the constituency of Sleaford and North Hykeham, Lincolnshire, part of an area where 62% of voters had backed leaving the EU. The local Tory MP had resigned over his differences with Theresa May and her government over its treatment of refugees, international aid and attempts to cut parliament out of the Brexit process – and thereby triggered a contest defined by the idea that we had to confront the EU and escape its grip as soon as possible. The Tories campaigned with the slogan “Brexit means Brexit” and the promise of “a fully independent, sovereign country”, and won over 50% of the vote, with Ukip coming a distant second.
When I spent time there, what was interesting was not the rather muted battle between the parties, but a glaring generational divide, which was clear as soon as I started talking to people. At one end of the spectrum, most people over 60 were still worked up about the EU, equally vocal about a range of issues that swirled around it, and worried that Westminster might somehow snatch Brexit away. But anyone under 30 responded to questions about such things either with pro-remain opinions, or indifferent shrugs.
“I think the older people voted to come out,” said one woman, who snugly fitted into the first category.
“They want to see this country as it was,” offered her husband. “All the old values have gone, haven’t they? There doesn’t seem to be much pride in the country.”
As had long been the norm, these sentiments often blurred into fairly pungent opinions about immigration, and claims about shadowy forces trying to deny Britain its destiny. But when we spoke to students from a nearby further education college, the only political issues that seemed to count were the near-impossibility of getting somewhere to live and the lack of good local jobs: any talk about the stuff of nationhood and belonging drew endless blank looks, almost as if I was speaking another language.
Six years on, despite the government’s sliding popularity, Boris Johnson is keeping this division festering on. His attempts to move on from his recent no-confidence vote centre on his government’s battle with “liberal left lawyers” and the European court of human rights over a truly mind-boggling asylum policy; and its reckless approach to the Northern Ireland protocol is all about the idea that if everything else fails, the Brexit wars will have to be restarted. The mixture of nostalgia, belligerence and a zealous belief in “sovereignty” – whatever that means – that came to the fore in 2016 has never really gone away. Conservatism’s offer to anyone unmoved by such abstracts, moreover, is once again a mystery.
What the government’s current contortions really betray is its anxiety about the Brexit project’s long-term survival. As they try and shore up an increasingly feeble prime minister, Brexiters are not behaving like people who won, but people brimming with fear and paranoia. On the day of Johnson’s no-confidence vote, Jacob Rees-Mogg warned – despite plenty of evidence to the contrary – that Tory opponents of the prime minister were “hostile to Brexit” and that the ballot would “undermine the Brexit referendum”. Suella Braverman, the government’s in-house brains trust and attorney general, last week dismissed concerns about Northern Ireland as “remainiac make-believe”. The rightwing press is full of talk of remainer plots, including Keir Starmer’s alleged secret plan to take us back into Europe.
Somewhere in their souls, the cleverer Brexiters presumably know two things. One is that there will be no material benefits from life outside the EU, and that its dire effects on the economy are now becoming crystal clear. The other echoes what I found in Sleaford: the fact that the vote to exit the EU was the product of a unique political moment based on delicate age demographics that have already shifted, which confirms the sense that hardcore Brexitism is a doomed creed. It will fade as the future takes shape and Brexit’s dire consequences become inescapable. But as panic sets in, the strongest Tory instinct is not to rethink. Instead, the most doctrinaire and stupid Conservatives see no other option than to double down.
History very often works like this. Partisans sometimes rejoice in seemingly historic triumphs that are followed by defeat and retreat, something that may yet apply to both the referendum, and Johnson’s win in 2019 (shades here of George Dangerfield’s famous critique of the Liberal landslide of 1906: “from that victory they never recovered”). Among revolutionaries and zealots – a description that surely fits many Tory Brexiters – there is always a tendency to assume that if things slip, the apparent supporters of a cause will be as passionate and driven as the people at the top, and equally attached to their big ideas. The truth is that if a revolution fails to deliver the most basic gains for people, it will sooner or later founder; and that in any case, most of us tend to quickly get bored and frustrated by fanatics. Johnson once showed signs of understanding this: it seemed to be the essence of his promise to get Brexit done. In that context, in the midst of a cost of living crisis, the spectacle of him and his allies threatening to undo it and wallow in complete arcana is quite something.
In Sleaford and elsewhere, I suspect that even many of the apparently hardened Brexiters of 2016 will be left cold, but that is only half the point. Remember: 73% of 18- to 24-year-olds voted remain. Among the 25-34 age group, the figure was 62%. Three years ago, when hardcore Tories raised the union jack and flirted with a no-deal Brexit, 68% of over-65s said they supported that course of action, but the figure for 18-24s was a measly 14%. Does that suggest any kind of firm foundation for a Tory future based on flag-waving belligerence and endless fights with Brussels?
Clearly not, and the same, refreshingly hopeful argument may apply to the political present. If the Conservatives lose next week’s byelections in Devon and West Yorkshire, we will presumably hear a lot about Partygate and people’s doubts about the prime minister’s fitness for office. What we also ought to consider is something that is going to become more and more obvious: the fact that Johnson and his stubborn allies are starting to look like generals fighting the last war, wilfully oblivious to how much their home country is changing, and the uselessness of their tattered maps.
John Harris is a Guardian columnist, who writes on subjects including politics, popular culture and music.