Patrick O'Flynn

The Tory manifesto shows we don’t need to trust Boris on Brexit

The Tory manifesto shows we don't need to trust Boris on Brexit
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'But can we really trust the Tories to deliver Brexit?' This is the question I am most often asked on social media and in person by long-standing Brexiteers who, like me, are not habitual or tribal Conservatives.

And the reply I never give is: 'Yes, of course we can'. Because let’s be blunt about this: the Conservative party has not earned the trust of Brexiteers over the years.

It had to be bullied into holding a referendum by Ukip, at a time when the number of Conservative MPs prepared openly to speak in favour of leaving the EU could be counted on the fingers of one hand. It then immediately handed the Brexit process over to a pro-Remain leader who constructed a deal that would serve as a 'bridge' (copyright, Sir Olly Robbins) to a high-alignment future, i.e. Brexit In Name Only.

It then failed to take us out of the EU when it said it would and had to be bullied by the newly-formed Brexit party into installing a fresh leader who understood the point of leaving and the arrangements from which it was essential to depart.

So no, we Brexit old-timers cannot 'trust' the Tories. But that is not really the point. The more relevant question is whether we can compel – and indeed are compelling – the Tories to deliver Brexit. And here the signs are much better.

Before Boris Johnson became Conservative leader and Prime Minister, the conventional wisdom among the pundit class was that he was so loathed by other MPs, he was unlikely to make the final two in any leadership contest. I do not suggest for a moment that the pundits were inventing such antipathy.

But then pro-Leave voters discovered that by voting strategically they could force the parliamentary Tory party – in order to save its own skin – to ditch May for Johnson. Which is why the Tories' nine per cent in the European elections became a 30 per cent poll share as soon as Johnson took office, and has now turned to over 40 per cent following his dogged pursuit of Brexit. And lo, all 635 Conservative candidates have personally pledged to vote to deliver the Prime Minister’s deal should they win a Commons majority.

There is even better news in the Conservative manifesto. For a start, it explicitly rules out extending the transition period beyond the end of next year. Can we completely trust that? Well, no of course not. But what we can say for sure is that setting out such a definite pledge in a manifesto drastically increases the political cost to a Johnson administration of failing to deliver. So we can also infer that it currently must, at least, be intending to deliver.

In contrast with May’s 'Brexit means Brexit' guff, the language in the manifesto is also remarkably clear on the destination the country is heading towards, saying our new relationship with the EU will be 'based on free trade and friendly cooperation, not on the EU’s treaties or EU law'. It adds: 'We will keep the UK out of the single market, out of any form of customs union, and end the role of the European Court of Justice.' It also pledges to 'ensure we are in full control of our fishing waters'.

Could these pledges be broken? Yes, of course they could be. But again only at the cost to the Tories of two thirds of their support abandoning them yet again – this time, surely, with no likelihood of ever returning.

I suggest that the Conservative party is, at this juncture, best regarded by Leaver Britain as an errant labrador which has now largely been trained out of its natural inclination to head off down the wrong track when out on a walk. Through the judicious deployment of suitable rewards and punishments over a series of elections we Leavers have done a Barbara Woodhouse job on it.

Yes, it may still cast an envious eye towards the wrong track – particularly when the nitty gritty issues such as the extent of future EU access to British fishing grounds come to be settled – but fundamentally it knows that charging back off into the Brussels bushes would be guaranteed to end in misery. It has learned that the Rudd-Hammond path doesn’t work, but the Johnson path leads to good things.

We simply have no need to take all this on trust. The Conservative party’s self-interest is now fully aligned with delivering a meaningful Brexit that nonetheless seeks to sustain sensible and friendly relations with our continental neighbours.

On 12 December, the boot will be on the other foot. The Conservative party will need to know that it can count on us – the great tribe of country-before-party Brexiteers which possesses the collective power to haul it over the line. After all the breakthroughs and advances of recent months and the clarity of language in this Tory manifesto, it would be the height of folly not to.

Patrick O’Flynn is chairman of the London branch of the SDP. He was previously a Ukip MEP and director of communications for the party.