Rishi Sunak and the search for a second Brexit
On wedges and their limits.
Tolkein’s hobbits were a race known, amongst other things, for their hearty appetites. If possible, they squeezed in six meals a day. Most frustrating for their comrades, it seemed, was the second breakfast, tucking in just as the rest of the fellowship were hitting their morning stride. Now, in their own quest for electoral salvation, the Tories are perhaps not taking the same breaks, but instead hunting for a second Brexit. So far, it is only leading to them flailing around.
Now the party is almost synonymous with the project, it is easy to forget the strange history of the Conservatives and Euroscepticism. Macmillan was the first Prime Minister to want to join the burgeoning European project – only to be rebuffed by de Gaulle’s “no”. A Conservative Prime Minister completed his ambition in 1972, and even through the 80s and '90s, Euroscepticism was not an essential part of the Tory Party.
After the comprehensive defeat in 1997, and the Labour Party occupying so much of the Conservatives’ economic platform, this changed a bit. Opposition to the EU became the main thing that marked the party out. Opposing the Euro was a key part of the 2001 campaign, and Europe determined the subsequent leadership election – pushing IDS to the helm ahead of Ken Clarke. Indeed, even up to the Referendum, the party was uneasy about exiting.
David Cameron’s plan – or at least hope – was not to leave. He thought that embracing the referendum would give the edge to the party in the 2015 election, before finally exorcising the European issue from his backbenchers. He hoped, on 24th June 2016, to turn around and tell everyone from the Lexiteers to the Maastricht Bastards to Nigel Farage, “You lost, get over it”. It was time, he intended, for the party to stop banging on about Europe.
Instead, he lost his gamble. The country voted out and the party itself became gradually more imbued with Brexit. The voter base shifted – just 56% of 2016 Tories voted Leave compared with 75% of 2019 voters – as did the membership and the parliamentary party. Now, nearly a decade on from that first promise of the referendum, the Conservative brand is almost entirely entwined with leaving the EU. Unfortunately for the Tories, this has now lost its electoral potency, and so to regain that momentum, they are searching for an issue to take its place in the same way.