Loyalty, it used to be said, was the Tories’ secret weapon. No longer. Self-discipline has been discarded — along with commitments to lowering taxes, being strong on defence and keeping the streets safe. The Conservatives appear to have abandoned all of their beliefs and transformed into the party of Brexit. But, it seems, they can’t even get that right.
Brexit is one of the most important projects any government has undertaken in our postwar history — a task that has been entrusted to Conservative MPs, most of whom voted against Brexit. The Prime Minister and her Chancellor, her Foreign Secretary and her Home Secretary all argued during the referendum campaign that leaving the EU would be a disaster. Now in charge of things, they are dangerously close to vindication, mainly because the party is indulging in a bout of in-fighting when attention ought to be focused on the task in hand.
Boris Johnson has been the subject of much of this week’s back-biting. Anyone who walks out of government in protest at one of its main policies can expect to find themselves in the wilderness, but is there anything to justify the very public vow by Alan Duncan, a Foreign Office minister, to ‘end’ the former foreign secretary’s political career? For a minister to attack a backbencher in this way is a sign of a party that is going quite mad. Indeed, Mr Duncan embodies everything that is wrong about Theresa May’s approach to the job. When she made Mr Johnson foreign secretary, she appointed Mr Duncan as his deputy in a quite deliberate act of sabotage: everyone at Westminster knew the latter loathed the former.
Johnny Mercer, a backbencher and former Remain voter, observed this week that you don’t have to be a dedicated Brexiteer to come to the conclusion that the Chequers deal would give Britain the worst of all worlds: we’d be tied to EU rules on goods and many other things, but without any say in those rules. Chequers makes no sense, which is why, at present, Mrs May doesn’t have the votes to pass it in the Commons without opposition support. Given that the EU itself is hardly enthusiastic about Chequers, the deal is effectively dead. The Prime Minister must accept that.
But Mrs May need not fish around too much for a proposal to replace it. The EU has already offered the UK an acceptable trade deal. Back in March, Donald Tusk proposed a ‘Canada plus’ deal which would enable trade in goods on pretty much the same terms as now, with additional bonuses. This proposal has since been reiterated by the EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier. Why, then, the endless circle of scare stories about supermarket shelves emptying and diabetics unable to obtain insulin? Any worries about the free flow of goods between Britain and the EU can be eradicated at a stroke by the British government accepting the offer of a Canada-style deal. The negotiations ought to seek a slightly deeper relationship, and as much free trade as the EU can bear.
Nor is the Irish border issue as insoluble as has been made out. Downing Street’s refusal to countenance the idea of allowing EU customs officials to carry out some work in British ports to keep checks away from the border is small-minded. They must think again. This would be a sensible arrangement between Britain and the EU, which even after Brexit should — and must — remain as one of our closest economic and political partners.
With a Brexit consensus in reach, the Conservatives should be working hard to achieve it. Instead they are obsessing on the leadership challenge that will inevitably follow it. As James Forsyth argues on p10, it is this combination of Brexit and a weak PM that has roused the party’s bloodlust. If the job is botched (as it would be under May’s Chequers proposal), then the failure will be forever associated with the Tories. Or what would remain of them.
Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell must be looking on with amazement and delight as the Conservatives try pre-emptive attacks on Boris Johnson. But Tory opponents of Chequers aren’t blameless, either. The European Research Group enjoys discussing how to get rid of Mrs May. It might be more productive if it produced a plan. Anger without a plan is self-harm.
It is not so long ago that the Conservatives called a needless general election and went to the country with nothing to say beyond the phrase ‘strong and stable’. As voters were soon able to discern, Mrs May was anything but. Her party looked like a shambles. The Prime Minister’s flagship proposal for long-term care of the elderly was dubbed a ‘dementia tax’. After her U-turn, May’s plea that ‘nothing had changed’ was taken as an insult to voters’ intelligence.
History now repeats itself. Mrs May promised a clean Brexit, but now offers continued fealty to EU rules, while insisting that ‘nothing has changed’ and that she hasn’t crossed her own red lines. But if the Tories could unite around a Canada-style Brexit deal — one that the EU is willing to offer — this issue could be neatly resolved without the spilling of Tory blood.