Tory hardliners forced to adopt Labour’s clothing

Published by The i paper (7th October, 2019)

It was strange to read the text of Michael Gove’s speech celebrating German Unity Day last week. Not for the silly controversy that shot briefly around social media, falsely claiming that he compared Brexit to the fall of the Berlin Wall, but for the sentiments expressed with typical eloquence by this cabinet minister. For he spoke movingly about the spirit of solidarity that bound two places into one, arguing that the example of Germany ‘reminds us how important it is to come together’.

He is right. The reunification of this European powerhouse is one of the great achievements of recent history, for all the divisions that still dog the country. Yet how bizarre to hear one of the architects of Brexit condemning ‘temptations for people to pull apart rather than come together’ as his own tormented nation fissures in the furious struggle to quit its key trading alliance. ‘There are always challenges that pull us apart,’ said Gove. ‘Political polarisation, economic divisions, and sometimes an increasingly raucous and strident political and media atmosphere.’

Brexit is, of course, the big challenge ripping apart our own nation. And the political polarisation, the economic divisions, the toxic political and media atmosphere, are being deliberately inflamed by a populist prime minister who was Gove’s fellow leader of the Leave campaign and now his boss. Boris Johnson remains adamant: Britain is quitting the European Union at the end of this month. Yet even now, even at this dark hour for our troubled democracy and its creaking institutions, any benefits of departure remain blurred at best amid intense focus on the exit process.

The arguments for leaving were summed up by the slogan of ‘taking back control’, a shallow phrase that fed the concept of a nation being liberated from the supposed bureaucratic shackles of Brussels. Leading Brexiteers alongside Johnson and Gove were largely politicians on the libertarian wing of Westminster, angered by rules to prevent obesity or protect newts. The type of Tory who wants to unleash market forces on public services, the sort of politician that instinctively dislikes ‘nannying’ state interference, the kind of people who despise political correctness as dictating to the masses.

These are the children of Thatcherism, who joined disciples such as Nigel Lawson, Norman Tebbit and John Redwood to promote Brexit. They want to cut taxes, slash red tape and liberate markets. The 2010 generation coalesced around a radical book called Britannia Unchained, which fumed about a ‘bloated state, high taxes and excessive regulation’ in a nation with cushy benefits and lazy workers. All five MPs behind this diatribe are now key players in Johnson’s populist regime, including the Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab and the smirking Home Secretary Priti Patel.

Many of these folk came to the Brexit cause with revolutionary fervour. They saw a chance to shake up Britain by remaking it as ‘Singapore-on-the Thames’, a low-tax and business-friendly haven. Once, I would have sympathised with such ideas; as Edwina Currie said, everyone can be libertarian until they have children – and this is especially true if their child, like one of mine, has severe disabilities.

Yet there is a paradox now at the core of British politics. For the self-styled freedom fighters who have taken over the Tories must pivot their party towards electoral groups that backed Brexit – and with immense irony, these are the sorts of often-struggling people likely to want the state to provide more security, not disruption, in their lives. Perversely, it was the turbulence of modernity in an age of globalisation and rapid technological change that drove many voters to back Leave.

Yet as the shock waves of that wretched 2016 referendum rip apart tribal loyalties, devastating Tory support in its traditional southern heartlands, Johnson must look to build an electoral victory by capturing scores of working-class seats held by Labour in the north and Midlands where voters are infuriated by a failure to secure Brexit. Polls indicate this strategy might just be working. Visiting Doncaster earlier this month, it was not hard to find lifetime Labour voters switching to either the Tories or Brexit Party.

This is why ministers are talking tough on crime, raising the living wage, spraying cash on public services and spending on infrastructure. The political map is being redrawn before our eyes, speeding up shifts first detected two decades ago as cultural identity replaces economics as the main dividing line in politics. Yet if the Tories are to survive – a valid question given their ownership of the Brexit disaster and determination to drive away younger generations along with higher-educated professionals – they must not just win enough of these working-class voters at the next election but then hold on to them.

For all the talk of silly regulations stifling enterprise, membership of the European Union has been shown to drive economic freedom. But few people are interested in such uncomfortable realities. Now there is vague talk of cutting red tape and Labour is unnerved by weakening of workers’ rights in Johnson’s latest Brexit plans.

But those proponents of departure, the hard-right ideologues who paralysed our country with bogus talk of taking back control, must ditch their true desires to shake up the country by privatising public services, slashing benefits and liberating markets if they are to woo the social and economic conservatives that can keep them in office.

This is just one of the many incongruities of our current politics as it is infected by Brexit-inflamed populism, shaking old certainties that have informed politics all my adult life. Yet amid the bitterness, there is something almost delicious at seeing these small-state libertarians, the smug apostles of this chaos, forced to adopt the policies of the interventionist left after landing us all in such a mess.

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