To anyone outside the Westminster bubble, the existential threat faced by the Conservative Party has been evident for some time. Since Chequers, my timeline has been littered with images of cut-up membership cards. In the last few weeks, what was an intermittent trickle has become a tide. Those raging that ‘they will never vote Tory again’ have increased by orders of magnitude. As realization finally dawns that the Prime Minister has no intention of letting us properly leave the EU, Conservatives like me are no longer expressing disgust and frustration, but a visceral anger and a desire to see the Party annihilated. Former Tory members, campaigners even former candidates and councillors, are urging voters to turnout against the Party they once supported.
Off social media, news from the grassroots is no better. Lewis Goodall and Mark Wallace have collated responses from those on the front line – an increasingly appropriate term, given the feedback. Recent polls show a 10 point fall for the Conservatives in a month, and a mere 16% support for the Conservatives fighting the EU elections. If this came to pass, it would be the worst election result of the party on the national level since it’s creation in 1834, and who is confident that the numbers have reached their nadir? With the launch of the Brexit Party, hot on the heels of Mrs May’s latest humiliating retreat, disenchanted voters finally have a party and a leader to vote for that cannot easily be ignored. It is beginning to seem like Tory Armaggeddon.
So how has the Party allowed itself to get into such a state, and what does that say about our politics? Well, although Brexit is the obvious trigger, the issues between the Party and the grassroots have been building for some time. Proposals to change selection, with CCHQ taking more control over candidate shortlists, and accusations of favourites being parachuted into safe seats, suggest a Party increasingly disengaged from its membership. Likewise, the recent interventions of Central Office following the calls for deselections of high profile ‘Remain’ MPs, and the coronation of May – it has been nearly 15 years since the members got to vote on their leader. Even if members do get a choice following the tantalisingly imminent – but sadly not imminent enough – defenestration of the PM, the unedifying manoeuvrings to ‘keep Boris out’ will probably mean a members’ favourite won’t make the ballot. Why bother to join a Party when The Powers That Be seem intent on neutralising choice and rigging the ballot in their favour?
Such hubris may be looked on as part of a wider malaise. It isn’t only the Tories who have been arrogant and complacent. Labour seem to have abandoned their Northern Heartlands, who voted overwhelmingly to leave, by shifting towards a Second Referendum. The Lib. Dems have recently been consistent in their unwillingness to accept the referendum result, albeit the statements of their current and former leaders once indicated a very different conviction. Indeed, for three years, MPs, Lords, many of our institutions and not least much of the mainstream media, seem to have been working assiduously to water-down ‘Leave’, framing an idea of ‘Soft and Hard Brexit’ and the need for compromise, as if 52% and well over a million people were not, after all, a legitimate majority. In doing so, they have looked to force a deal through the House of Commons which is so poor that it will effectively surrender part of the country, and keep us locked in indefinitely to most of the EU institutions that we are supposed to be leaving. Indeed, many MPs are now using the repeated failure to get May’s terrible deal passed as an excuse for denying the referendum outright, revoking Article 50 and staying in the European Union. Even Cabinet Ministers talk about the ‘Second Referendum’, as if the one we had in 2016 was insufficient. The latest incarnation of this outrage is even more democratically abhorrent than the so-called ‘People’s Vote’ – if that is possible – coming as it does in the guise of a ‘Confirmatory Vote’ that would offer two losing options – May’s Deal, or Remain – on the ballot.
Both Parties, and their apparatchiks and media hangers-on, seem to believe that the electorate will put up with this. That, come the next election, the old loyalties can be relied upon, that we will swallow our anger and pride, hold our nose and vote tribally, whether from laziness, tradition or plain fear of the opposition bogeymen. But if I, a Tory supporter for thirty years, am any indication, they have miscalculated badly. I simply will not vote Tory unless they deliver Brexit. Who could vote for a Party whose leader has lied, has been in contempt of Parliament, and who has suffered a catalogue of record-breaking defeats and yet clings on to power without compunction? A leader who has broken promise after promise – not only manifesto commitments, but those made to the People outside Downing Street, and to MPs on the floor of the House of Commons; promises sometimes made only to be broken 24 hours later? Who will vote for a Party whose Senior Ministers are so weak that they will stand by as the norms of Cabinet governance are traduced, or whose back-benchers appear unwilling, if not incapable, of doing anything beyond writing letters, tacitly accepting our ongoing national humiliation in front of the whole world? I would not do it if Joseph Stalin were the only other option on the ballot paper.
People can forgive mistakes, they can even forgive incompetence, but they cannot and will not overlook betrayal. We have watched in disbelief and disgust all the back-stabbing and deceit; MPs wrangling on the floor of the House, ex-Prime Ministers, Lords, intellectuals – the list is unedifying and long – apparently willing to do almost anything: collude with Opposition MPs, ‘advise’ foreign leaders and the EU, undermine their own Government, even abuse Constitutional norms – to get their own way and flout the democratically expressed wishes of the people. They attempt to justify their actions by citing Edmund Burke, implying (if not quite having the guts actually to say) that they know better what is good for us and so we must swallow our medicine. They opine that we didn’t know what we voted for and/or were too ignorant or plain stupid to understand that we were manipulated and duped by Numbers on a Bus / Arron Banks / Vladimir Putin and his online army of pro-Brexit Bot farms. Even for a weary and cynical electorate, even for the most politically disengaged, this level of mendacity and duplicity is an affront to democracy. What we have long suspected – that, with noble exceptions, our MPs do not really represent us; that they do not listen; that they would do or say anything to get elected and then, without scruple, go back on their word, not only appears to have been confirmed, it has become self-evident. The political classes don’t respect us, and they don’t respect our vote. The ugly mood in the country at this realization is palpable.
Does the Tory Party see it yet? Does Labour? Or do they continue to judge us by their own yardstick, trusting that ‘everybody knows manifesto commitments don’t really mean anything’; that political promises somehow don’t count, and that we are being hopelessly naïve to demand consistency, honesty, integrity, honour, and principle from those that claim to represent us? Or do they really believe we will eventually just shrug our shoulders and walk away; either not vote at all or vote as we always do? I’m not sure. The fact that Arch-Remainer Amber Rudd has been touted as a Kingmaker suggests they are still in denial about the ‘extinction level event’ they are facing.
Nigel Farage certainly understands – telling us the system is broken and in need of reform is preaching to a fervent choir. The Brexit Party’s rallying cry for self-belief and a strong, positive view of our national future feels like a sweet balm after the unremitting thin grey gruel of retrenchment, capitulation and humiliation offered up by our robotic, charisma-free PM and her ‘desiccated calculating machine’ sidekick, Philip Hammond.
New battle lines are being drawn, new arguments made. Brexit is now being framed as a battle of wills between Parliament and the People. Who can doubt that the People will win? If we are to have any claim at all to be a proud, independent, sovereign and democratic nation, we have to.