All this Tory delirium – it’s like stumbling into a Ukip meeting
Published by The Guardian (4th October, 2016)
Theresa May long plotted to become leader of her party. Now all those weary evenings on the rubber chicken circuit and long hours in the Home Office have paid off, leaving our new prime minister in ebullient mood in Birmingham. I watched her speak in two private events yesterday night. She was warm and even witty as she engaged in a spot of rabble-rousing after her landmark Brexit speech at the Conservative conference, cheered by adoring audiences of boisterous party workers.
Tory activists tend to be loyal to new leaders. And to Tory activists May is recognisably one of them – unlike her predecessor – after a 30-year political journey from Durnsford ward on south London’s Merton council to Downing Street. Yet there is an extra whiff of triumphalism this year after the referendum result. Almost 5 million Tory voters backed remain, but the mood at conference is one of unrestrained delight: Brussels has been beaten and metropolitan liberals banished, and foreigners flooding Britain will be turned back.
May wants her premiership defined by social justice reforms, not just Brexit. This is admirable. But the conference’s post-referendum delirium feels depressing; much of the time like stumbling into a Ukip event. Speeches from the podium talk of taking back control from Europe and imply that other nations will do exactly as Britain tells them, while in fringe meetings they discuss how to stop migration and bring back grammar schools. All that is missing are the purple and yellow ties.
Brexit has impacted inevitably on political discourse in both main parties, especially on immigration. A book by Gary Gibbon, the Channel 4 News political editor, suggests the Australian points system was only pushed by leave campaigners to send a dog-whistle signal to white voters since that nation is seen as overwhelmingly white. Now we must live with the legacy of such cynical and divisive politics.
But like it or not, Brexit is a reality. Those of us who think it a disastrous idea need to stop being so stunned by this self-harming decision and start forging a sensible response to protect the economy and liberal values. Not least since May has interpreted the referendum result as first and foremost a vote to curb immigration, so will sacrifice single-market membership to impose restrictions on free movement.
Clearly the prime minister is adopting a negotiating stance ahead of tough talks over terms of departure. But it was noticeable that she singled out food labelling when discussing sovereignty in her Sunday speech, since this ultimately comes under World Trade Organisation deals that will still be binding post Brexit. This underscores spurious claims of ‘taking back control’ in such an interlocked world. Meanwhile one cabinet minister said that economic corrosion caused by Brexit may slow down flows of migrants moving here for work.
But most dismaying is the mixture of naivety, arrogance and rank hypocrisy found behind the Brexit bravura. No one seems to have a clue as to what sort of agreement can be achieved with our closest trading partners in Europe. The Brexit ministry is still scrabbling to find skilled negotiators, but article 50 is being triggered within five months. Then Britain will have just two years to sort a trade deal with a bloc of 27 nations that does not want to undermine a union based on free markets and free movement. Yes, they have concerns over migration – but that is from outside, not within, the EU. At the same time, those new negotiators must do bilateral deals with dozens more nations whose EU agreements will no longer apply to us.
Ministers admit they may have to use billions saved from Brussels to bail out firms suffering Brexit fallout, while Downing Street has offered indemnities to alarmed trading partners. Bear in mind Canada has taken seven years to sort an EU trade deal, while Switzerland took 17 years to sign one insurance agreement. Norway lost 20,000 jobs and chunks of its fish-processing industry to Denmark and Poland because of having to accept EU tariffs, underlining how duties can distort markets.
When pressed about the outcome, a key minister kept repeating to me ‘the best possible deal’ before finally confessing that Britain would end up accepting the imposition of some tariffs. Another talked airily of deals with Australia, which represents less than 2% of our trade. A third cheerily insisted that City financiers would not wish to move to Frankfurt. A fourth repeated the tired mantra that Europe will give in to British demands because of the size of our economy.
We hear brave talk of Britain’s new role in the world, exemplified by Boris Johnson’s speech on soft-power strength. But we also learn of fresh limits on foreign students, despite the global success of our universities, and on foreign workers, who fuel growth in so many sectors (and prop up public services). Already the tightening of visas, plus exorbitant costs, is undermining the ability and desire of many in Africa and Asia to trade with Britain. Incidentally the foreign secretary should remember that Africa is not one country – a slip in his speech that spoke volumes about attitudes.
Polling indicates that despite the Brexit vote most voters are unwilling to see their own income fall to reduce immigration. But already growth predictions are slowing, and uncertainty is growing. Our nation has set its future aflame with insouciance – fuelled by provocateurs who pose as saviours of the country, but clearly have few ideas how to control the blaze.