I wrote on many occasions during the Brexit process that the initial referendum was really an invitation from David Cameron for the British public to become embroiled in a largely internal Tory Party battle. The public duly obliged by siding with either Leave or Remain. Leave wasn’t the result Cameron expected. A general election and two prime ministers later and we are all still embroiled in it.
The fact that it started as a Tory issue means that everything the government has done, under the three prime ministers since the referendum, has been shaded by that fact. If any of these people had been the rational, nation loving leaders the claim to be, they would have acted differently. They have all had the interests of themselves and the future of the Conservatives most closely to their hearts meaning this is as much about ideology as it is pragmatic governing. This is probably not too surprising but beyond our cynicism for politicians, it’s important to see why they have acted in the ways they have as it exposes the flaws of our ‘democracy’ further and helps us make sense of a seemingly ever-changing political situation. In fact, things have been very stable in some regards since 2016.
The first thing to note on top of the fact that the referendum was an argument among Tories gone national, is that both sides campaigned as if they were parties in a general election. The Leave and Remain sides treated the referendum as if they would have a mandate to actually do all the things they claimed were their policies during the campaign. Ludicrous in hindsight, at the time it meant the debate around the campaign was more like a slanging match on policies. The media scrutinised the claims but very few people scrutinised the process that we would end up needing to go through, which was obviously much more important.
The problem for Cameron in treating it like a general election was that when he lost he assumed he had to resign. He did so on the morning after the results were declared and did so by vowing that the next Tory prime minister would enact Brexit: in other words, they would put through all the policy commitments made during the referendum campaign. This set in motion the disaster that was Theresa May as prime minister and the double disaster of the current prime minister, Boris Johnson.
By framing it first as a Tory issue and second as a set of policy commitments, Cameron over-simplified a complex constitutional change. There were other ways it could have been handled. For example, if it wasn’t so much about the Tory Party then close working between the political parties or even a government of national unity could have been used to ensure a healthy majority in parliament for getting a deal sorted and running the country as normal. If Brexit didn’t involve a set of policy promises, politicians may have had fewer red lines to debate in the first instance.
Instead, the Tories kept it internal. First, May decided that to get Brexit sorted she would need a larger majority so she called an election and lost the majority she had. Her resulting deal with the DUP made Northern Ireland the most important part of the Brexit negotiations and her loss of majority and failure to reach out to other parties made her position untenable in the long term. Despite this, she was seen as having compromised a number of times and this was seen as a mistake by the man that would follow her. Johnson took the view that the government should show strength. This was and continues to be a huge issue because he has an even worse situation with regards to the parliamentary arithmetic.
Johnson has made the same mistake as May in keeping Brexit as a promise to be delivered, keeping it as a Tory promise and shutting everyone else out. He has made the same gamble as May in believing that a general election is the way to success. It only works if you win and I suspect even then the idea that Brexit is a set of policies to be delivered is still not going to be very smooth.
The arrogance of our last three prime ministers is astounding. It shows a real lack of vision in our political class. In Johnson, it reaches peak arrogance. Just consider his actions so far:
- He acts unlawfully in proroguing parliament
- He loses vote after vote in parliament
- He wins a vote in parliament on his Brexit deal but then delays it because it might get amended
- He secures a vote on his Queens Speech but then pulls the Bills because he wants a general election
So he wants an election that he might lose. He wants a Brexit deal which he won’t debate. He pulls legislation that he announced days earlier. All this because he simply can’t work with anyone else. It must be kept as a Tory Brexit, pure and unsullied by other viewpoints.
What we are witnessing day to day might be odd and unusual and indeed unprecedented but the stability we see is in a Tory Party that has enthralled the public with Brexit as the greatest shit show on earth. It is a battle for supremacy in that party and it is a party that assumes it has a right to be at the centre of the UK. The public fell into the trap but it is a dangerous strategy. When the election comes we will see if the Tories get punished for it or whether we all continue to take the hit.