Leading article

The end of May: Theresa must go so the Tories can heal

25 May 2019

9:00 AM

25 May 2019

9:00 AM

This week’s European election was always going to be pointless, at least from a British perspective. It is possible that the elected candidates will never even take up their seats. In one important sense, however, the election campaign has been useful: as a reminder of where public opinion stands on Brexit.

A few weeks ago, many believed that Change UK, the party founded by Labour and Conservative dissidents spoiling for a revocation of Article 50, would capture the public mood. Instead, another new political party would appear to have triumphed — a party set up with the sole purpose of expressing anger at the failure of Parliament to effect Britain’s departure from the EU on the date which had been set into law.

The Brexit party makes a point that most Remainers would agree with: the Tory handling of Brexit has been a national humiliation. The breezily optimistic scenarios that David Davis and others set out — that a trade deal would be negotiated in a brief trip to Berlin — have been terrifyingly wrong. But the difficulty has also illustrated just how deeply ingrained EU rules are in what is often passed off as British law and British government. Many Remainers are troubled by the behaviour of Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker, who have shown just how politicised and controlling the European Commission has become.

This is why, as the wreckage of Theresa May’s Brexit stands before us, the country remains still evenly split on Brexit. A recent Survation poll showed that if there were another referendum tomorrow, Remain would win 51 per cent and Leave 49 per cent. Given how much political party support shifts — as the fall in support for both Labour and the Tories demonstrates — the stubbornness of opinion on Brexit is remarkable. Had public opinion shifted, in light of new facts and developments, there might be grounds for a second referendum. As things stand, Theresa May’s successor will have to complete the job — while doing as much as possible to assuage the legitimate concerns of those supporting the various Remain parties.

For all of her last-minute offers to Labour MPs, including the prospect of another referendum, May has been appallingly intransigent. She adopted an abrasive tone towards Remainers, as if they were saboteurs to be crushed. When she found her own majority crushed in the general election, she forfeited goodwill and was unable to persuade anyone. Her successor must not repeat this mistake.

For the Conservatives to stand any chance of recovering, they will have to establish themselves unequivocally as the party of Brexit: deal or no deal. This might lead some Tories to defect. But where would they go, other than to the moribund Change UK? It is quite clear where there are votes to be found, and it is not by crowding into what is often mistakenly called the centre ground of British politics. It would be a strange ‘-centre’ which was occupied by those trying to overturn the result of a referendum which half of the electorate voted for.

Sir Keith Joseph, who led the Conservatives’ intellectual revival in the 1980s, always distinguished the ‘centre ground’ of parliament from the ‘common ground’ which government ought to share with the public. Those who confuse one with the other are always surprised by electoral outcomes, as the recent Australian election showed. Change UK lies in the centre ground of Westminster. But outside of Westminster, there is not much appetite for what they offer. The Liberal Democrats have proven to be a more coherent force for Remain, and look set to be the other big winners of the European elections.

Almost no one says a no-deal Brexit is the best option. Far better if Britain were to leave with a comprehensive trade deal. But without the plausible threat of Britain walking away, a good deal will not be forthcoming — this is not a difficult point to understand. The next Tory leader should spend more time talking about what will happen after Brexit. The ‘global Britain’ agenda should be made real. The cap for high-skilled migrants ought to be abolished, students should be removed from the immigration cap, more global alliances should be struck not just on trade but on defence.

May’s inability to articulate what would happen beyond Brexit explains why she has not been able to succeed — and why she ended up leading her party into these Euro elections. When the election results are counted on Sunday evening, they will show that those who wanted Brexit have not given up on it — but also that those opposed are just as concerned about what Brexit might bring. This shows that the way ahead now is to deliver on the result of the referendum — but in a global-minded way that addresses as many Remain concerns as possible.

Theresa May has failed as a leader and no time should be lost in finding a successor. There is no point in waiting for her Brexit deal to be voted down a fourth time: every day of this procrastination causes deep, and perhaps irreversible, damage to the Conservatives. The party does have the people and the ideas to rebuild itself; the question is whether it has the will. The Euro election campaign is over — the damage has been done. May can no longer be allowed to obstruct the healing process for which the country has waited too long.

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