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Once the Nasty party, now the Brexit party

Summary:
Brexit could be a gift to Labour that will keep on giving, if the Labour leader is able to grasp it One of the sentences you are sure to hear nowadays is: “Brexit is not going to go away anytime soon”. It is true because Conservative party members will not let it go away. A recent pollshowed a majority of those who will elect our next Prime Minister would prefer achieving Brexit to Scotland saying in the UK, Northern Ireland staying in the UK, or even the survival of their own party. They want Brexit even if it causes severe damage to the economy. The only thing that the poll suggested might make a majority forsake Brexit is the prospect of Jeremy Corbyn becoming Prime Minister.Therein lies the cure for our current Brexit blight and the opportunity for more than one period of Labour

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Brexit could be a gift to Labour that will keep on giving, if the Labour leader is able to grasp it

One of the sentences you are sure to hear nowadays is: “Brexit is not going to go away anytime soon”. It is true because Conservative party members will not let it go away. A recent pollshowed a majority of those who will elect our next Prime Minister would prefer achieving Brexit to Scotland saying in the UK, Northern Ireland staying in the UK, or even the survival of their own party. They want Brexit even if it causes severe damage to the economy. The only thing that the poll suggested might make a majority forsake Brexit is the prospect of Jeremy Corbyn becoming Prime Minister.Therein lies the cure for our current Brexit blight and the opportunity for more than one period of Labour government.

In the short term Brexit fanaticism is extremely scary. The wish to see Brexit happen even if it leads to the destruction of the Tory party is utterly extraordinary coming from Conservative party members. Of course Conservative MPs do not want to see that, but their survival in government now seems tied to getting Brexit done, and so most seem prepared to contemplate a No Deal Brexit if that is what it takes. Our only hope to prevent this are a small band of Tory MPs who might put country before party, who could then combine with most opposition MPs to stop this happening.

Even if the attempt to leave with No Deal in October fails or does not happen, the Tory party is not going to give up. This radicalised membership will do its work by selecting Brexiters when MPs retire or leave for other reasons, and they may well deselect some of those who oppose No Deal. At some point those willing to stand up in parliament against a No Deal Brexit on the Tory benches will shrink to become insignificant. At that point Conservative party members will get their prize, if they are still in government.

How did the Conservative party descend to this level of fanaticism about just one issue? Robert Saunders’s New Statesman articleabout the closing of the Conservative mind is well worth reading. It is particularly useful for those young enough to think that Conservatives were always neoliberals. He writes:
“For most of its history, the Conservative Party has embraced ideas, while disclaiming ideology. Yet today, a party enslaved by ideology is almost barren of thought, just as it faces a historic set of challenges.”

Sauders has some ideas about why this happened but I think it remains a puzzle. One possibility is simply the scale of their intellectual victory under Thatcher, such that their Labour opponents showed they could operate in the UK that Thatcher bequeathed but with a more human face (including more NHS spending). The Conservatives became, to use Theresa May’s words, the nasty party in voters minds. The only way forward was to double down on reactionary xenophobia (Hague’s “foreign land”) or ramp up the neoliberalism (Osborne's austerity).

How did the Tory party membership get so radicalised about Brexit, when all the talk was about radicalism and entryism in the Labour party? The reason is that the Tory press that spent so much ink on talking about an imagined hard left Labour membership was also busy radicalising the Conservatives. Brexit embodies a mixture of nationalism, xenophobia, nostalgia and neoliberal zeal that Conservative party members cannot resist.

In all this scary stuff there is a potential light at the end of the tunnel, a way out of all this mess. And despite all the talk, it isn’t a Remain victory in a People's Vote. Even if we have another referendum, which seems only likely in a last minute panic created by an EU ultimatum, it will not de-radicalise the Tory membership. If, as seems prudent, the referendum is about the withdrawal agreement, then Brexiters will say that the right question was not asked. If it involves No Deal, then any loss by a few percentage points (and the press will ensure at least that) will just become unfinished business.

The best way for Brexit to end is not in the drama of another referendum, but instead with a whimper. The only way that can happen, with a radicalised Tory membership, is by electing a Labour government. As I have argued with little challenge, the Tories would oppose any sort of softer Brexit a Labour government might propose, so together with Remainers they would have a blocking majority in parliament or the country. How far a Corbyn led government would go down this road to nowhere we do not know. But he would never be allowed to put a Labour government at risk by pursuing a lost cause, so Brexit will not happen as long as a Labour government remained in power..

What we know a future Labour government would do is undertake a lot of measures designed to help one section of the Brexit electorate, the so called left behind. Very soon those and other voters would lose interest in Brexit, as politics became all about what the Labour government was actually doing. People would increasingly look back at the years following the 2016 referendum as wasted years, and an example of something never to be repeated.

At first Conservatives would try and keep the flame of Brexit alive. Doing so would only ensure their unelectability, as Labour would only have to remind people of the chaos of the Brexit years. Conservative voters and MPs would gradually realise that being the Brexit party was like being the nasty party, a sure way not to be re-elected. It may take one or two more elections, but as that poll of Conservative party members suggested, the only thing that could make them give up Brexit is a Corbyn government. That is in essence why a Labour government is the best, and I suspect only, way of disposing of the Brexit blight that has infected the Conservative party and therefore the UK.

This is the light at the end of the tunnel, such that Brexit ends with a whimper. However you have perhaps already wondered why, if this is all true, so many Labour voters and Remain supporters chose not to vote Labour in the European elections? Why have the Liberal Democrats suddenly managed to break free of the shackles of being in the 2010 Coalition government to be among the four contender parties in opinion polls?

I think there are two answers, one that acted as a trigger and one underlying force. The trigger was the Brexit talks between Corbyn and May. Although political commentators rightly gave these talks little hope of success, their length would certainly have provoked a fear among Remainers who had voted Labour in 2017 that Brexit could happen in this way. In addition the European poll seemed like an appropriate time to protest.

The underlying factor is that many voters are now identifyingthemselves in political terms along a Remain/Leave divide instead of a political divide. Remainers were getting fed up with the absence of a strong political voice making the case for Remain, and instead hearing endless discussion of impossible Brexit plans from the ERG. All they hear from Labour (because most voters do not read political speeches) is the latest version of Labour’s position on a second referendum. Labour seems to be mufflingits own voice on the issue of the moment.The Liberal Democrat campaign sloganof ‘Bollocks to Brexit’ was just want Remainers had been waiting to hear.

Which brings us to the current shadow cabinet meetings. Corbyn has moved another iota, agreeingthat an option on the ballot would be “a real choice” for Remainers, but not moving nearly as far as many want. There is a certain symmetry in the two main parties position on Brexit, but also major differences. The symmetry is that, during May’s period, both parties wanted some form of compromise compared to what most of their party members wanted. Both parties eventually encouraged an insurgent party, the Brexit party for the Tories and the Liberal Democrats for Labour, that was able to take a large number of their votes by offering policies that forsaked compromise. But there the similarity ends.

The Conservative party will decide, in one way or another, to come to some kind of accommodation with the insurgent party. That will happen by changing their Brexit policy to mirror the policy of the insurgent, or to cooperate with the insurgent party in any general election, or both. The Conservatives, as they always do, will adapt to the threat they face in order to stay in power. .

The Labour leadership, in contrast, is in denial. All the evidence points to their failure to campaign for Remain as being a critical threat to an election victory, an election that could come very soon. Even before the European elections there were as many Remain and Leave maginals, because many working class Labour voters had changed their mind since 2016. In addition, it turns out Labour leavers do not feel that stronglyabout Labour taking a Remain position, but Labour Remainers care about it a lot. I have not come across a single reputable pollster that suggests Labour are increasing their General Election chances by keeping its pro-Brexit position, and plenty arguingthat to win they have to back Remain.

The argument that Labour needs to support Brexit to win the election is no longer credible. Instead the leadership’s support for Brexit puts at serious risk a Labour government that could rule for more than a decade. When you add in the impossibility of a Labour government enacting Brexit, and I just do not see why Lexiters remain in denial.

Incremental moves until conference also makes no sense as a strategy. The longer Remain voters get used to thinking they are going to vote Green or Liberal Democrat, and as long as the Labour leadership resists what appears to be overwhelming force, there is a strong risk that many will carry that habit into a General Election, if only because Labour’s eventual change will lack credibility.

If the shadow cabinet are interested in maximising Labour’s chance of being in power, it has to change Labour’s official position to one of supporting Remain now. No one is asking Corbyn himselfto campaign for Remain, and it would probably be better if he didn’t, because there are plenty on his front bench who can do so more credibly. But their campaigning has to reflect Labour’s official position, which is to become the only party that can make Brexit go away.

Simon Wren-lewis
Professor of Economic Policy at the Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford University, and a fellow of Merton College. This blog is written for both economists and non-economists.

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