The Tory party is the party of Brexit, whether it likes it or not. The referendum was called by a Tory prime minister, Tory politicians led Vote Leave and it is a Tory government that is taking Britain out of the European Union. Theresa May might equivocate when asked if she’d vote Leave in another referendum, but to the average voter, Brexit is a Tory policy.
Mrs May’s reluctance to say she’d back Brexit in another vote is revealing of a broader Conservative desire to avoid being too closely associated with the project. A classic example is Philip Hammond’s view that the £350 million a week supposedly promised to the National Health Service is Boris Johnson’s problem, not his. But ultimately, if Brexit doesn’t deliver what the public wants, it will be the whole Tory party that suffers. Few voters will bother to distinguish between those Tories who backed Remain and those who didn’t.
Delivering an orderly Brexit is existential for the Tories. If they fail to do that, their claim to be a competent party of government will be gone for a generation at least.
Given that if Brexit breaks, the Conservatives will pay the price, they should take ownership of it. They did try this at the last election, but in the wrong way. Mrs May said that she wanted an early election to strengthen her hand in the Brexit talks and to weaken the opposition parties ‘who want to stop me from getting the job done’. A few weeks later, she upped the ante, accusing the EU of trying to interfere in the election. She urged voters to let her ‘fight for Britain’.
But this bellicose rhetoric couldn’t disguise the fact that Mrs May was trying to fight an election on process, not substance.