Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May sits in the audience at the start of the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham, Britain September 30, 2018. REUTERS/Toby Melville
Theresa May. Her Conservatives are fighting like a natural party of opposition, the feted ruthlessness of its leaders deployed in the service of their own self-advancement © Reuters

Is it the bridge to Belfast or the festival of Brexit? Britain’s ruling Conservatives are already thinking aloud about the future outside the EU. Both ideas floated this week, the first perhaps frivolously by a former foreign secretary and the second seriously by the prime minister (although admittedly she called it a festival to showcase national renewal), illustrate two truths about the Tories. The first is that they are desperate to get beyond Brexit and start talking about the ordinary issues that concern voters. The second is that they just cannot do it.

The age-old clichés about the Tories come easy: the “natural party of government”; an “appetite for power”; a “ruthless talent for reinvention”; in leadership elections its MPs are routinely, if entertainingly, described as “the most sophisticated electorate in the world”.

None of these historic aphorisms leap to the front of the mind as the party meets for its annual conference in Birmingham. They are fighting like a natural party of opposition, the feted ruthlessness of its leaders deployed almost entirely in the service of their own self-advancement.

The Conservatives remain convulsed by the European neurosis that has destroyed their past four prime ministers, the conference adorned by leadership pretenders parading improbable prime ministerial credentials and purported Brexit purity.

Yet everyone in Birmingham — Brexiter or Remainer — is searching for that famed gift of reinvention, to pivot from Brexit into a new and attractive domestic agenda. Alas, there is no sign that the neurosis is easing. The queues that snaked round the building were for those pure Brexit events where MPs denounced their leader’s strategy.

Yet the need to start talking about something else is obvious. Last week’s Labour gathering caught their attention. Suddenly, they see Jeremy Corbyn’s party developing a socialist economic agenda with potential popular appeal, which terrifies them. So now the talk is of getting back to “real” issues, of tackling society’s perceived injustices, of proving capitalism works for voters.

With six months until Brexit this talk has an air of unreality, as if the stewardess suddenly tasked with landing a plane because the flight crew have all collapsed switches to discussing the dinner plans for the next night.

But, in any case, the party cannot get out from under Brexit. There are four reasons. The first is that it doesn’t really want to. The auditions for the leadership contest everyone assumes to be coming next year all feature earnest displays of Brexit purity. Boris Johnson’s ever more extreme attacks on prime minister Theresa May have been priced in, but to hear Jeremy Hunt, the foreign secretary, liken EU membership to a prison is to see a serious man crassly plying for votes.

Second, Brexit does not end on March 29. There are the negotiations and arguments to come during the interim period, the rethinking and recriminations because this was not the Brexit some had in mind.

Third, and perhaps most crucial, is that Brexit will set the economic conditions which determine what else can be done. It is easy to acknowledge a cost-of-living crisis. You need an expanding economy to do much about it. It is all very well to plan a great era of housebuilding, but a party with a claim to fiscal responsibility needs to be able to pay for it. Chancellor Philip Hammond may boldly have talked of a “deal dividend” for the right Brexit outcome, but he is holding tight to the purse strings until it materialises.

Finally, the Conservatives own Brexit. A majority of their voters backed it and they need to present it as a success to have any chance of re-election. This is where the festival of whatever comes into play. For the strategy that is developing in the minds of many is to tie Brexit to talk of a new era of self-confidence and national renewal. 

Brexit is presented as the chance to reconnect hated elites and ordinary voters as government tackles workplace insecurity and stagnating wages, stops migration being used as a vehicle for wage control and invests in public services. Capitalism is defended from Corbynism with an end of austerity, and all is possible because of the new self-confidence of a reawakened nation.

The Tories will not get past Brexit because they will not try. Better to show Brexit delivering for voters. Every rough sleeper found shelter and every new home built will be notched up to the “self-confidence” that comes from leaving. Money permitting, of course.

A post-Brexit domestic agenda? We’ll see. If the strategy succeeds the entire country is about to be turned into a festival of national renewal. It’s a neat trick if they can pull it off. Still, no need to rush out for tickets just yet.

Letter in response to this column:

Should we expect another Millennium Dome? / From Paul Barrett, London, UK

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