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How Brexit has unified the Conservative Party

A friend of mine reckons that Ex-Prime-Minister David Cameron’s plan was, all long, to extricate Britain from the EU. This theory reminds me of the similar things that were said about Gorbachev and the collapse of the old USSR. If Gorbachev had been a CIA agent, working to contrive the exact USSR collapse that happened, what would he have done differently? Very little. It’s the same with Cameron and Brexit. How could Cameron have done a better job of contriving Brexit than he actually did do?

You may say: Cameron might actually have argued for Brexit, in public. But if he had done that, then many of those north of England Labourites who hate Cameron might have voted Remain instead of Out, just to stick it to those out-of-touch Etonian bastards, the way they actually did feel they were sticking it to the Etonians by voting Out. And Britain might now be chained to the sinking ship that is the EU rather than liberated from it.

But, whether by design, as my friend thinks, or by accident, as most others assume, Brexit has unified the Conservative Party. With that observation, I move from the territory of undisprovable speculative diversion into the land of out-in-the-open truth. And I am not the only one who has noticed this.

For all of my adult life, the Europe issue has divided the Conservative Party. Until now.

The Conservative Party has consisted and will for the foreseeable future continue to consist of a spectrum of people who, at one end, are believers in various things – you know, principles and stuff – and at the other end, people whose only belief is in themselves and their own advancement. Most Conservatives are, I presume, a mixture of these tendencies.

A major strand of Conservative thinking concerns being “realistic”, going with the grain of events, working with people as they are, with public opinion as it is, with the world as it is. Get too publicly excited about your preferred clutch of principles in defiance of any of the above, and you are letting the Conservative side down. Conservatives are not completely unprincipled, but they are anti letting your principles run away with you. All political parties have to have realists in them, to get things done and get some political momentum, at which point they attract careerists. But for the British Conservative Party, the attitudes of such people amount to a distinct ideological principle in their own right, in the form of an anti-principle principle.

For whatever difference it makes, my opinion of David Cameron is that he did and does believe in some worthwhile things, but that every time he opens his mouth he sounds like careerism personified. I have not read this book, but I have flicked through it in a bookshop, and it would seem that its Guardian-writing authors believe this also.

Anyway, and to get back to the central thread of this piece, thanks to an earlier generation of Conservative politicians who, like David Cameron, were either masterfully cunning traitors or else blunderers (and as with Cameron it really doesn’t matter which – basically, I’d say, a bit of both), Britain joined what later became the European Union.

And ever since that moment and until just a few weeks ago, the Conservative Party was divided about the wisdom of this decision. Insofar as Conservatives have had principles – whether Whiggish enthusiasm for free trade and Whiggish dislike of bossy bureaucrats, or Tory enthusiasm for British political traditions and habits – then these principles have all told them that Britain should never have joined the EU and should get out, preferably right away, but failing that as soon as this could be contrived, and preferably before the EU itself fell to pieces.

However, the realist and careerist tendency among Conservatives has been pretty much entirely wedded to the EU. Working with the grain of events, with the realities of the modern world, and, in general, being a grown-up politician (rather than a silly overgrown adolescent who indulges in sincere public statements of belief in things), all of those inclinations have caused a generation of Conservative careerists to go with the flow of the EU, and to spend their lives in a state of perpetual irritation that they couldn’t persuade all the other damn Conservatives to stop grumbling and get with the programme.

Hence the perpetual and often acrimonious division of the Conservative Party into two warring camps, for as long as I can remember. The realist-careerists have been numerically far stronger in the upper reaches of the Party, particularly in Parliament. But mere Conservative voters have tended to side with their preferred proclaimers of those various principles, and to want Britain out. It seemed like this was just an unalterable fact of life. Conservative civil war seemed permanent and inevitable.

But now, with the rise of UKIP, the EU referendum and the Brexit vote, reality itself has been turned on its head. Now, both the realist-careerists and the Conservatives animated more by principles are all of them on the same side. Brexit is now the programme that grown-up, go-with-the-flow politicians need to get with.

It’s one thing to oppose all the turmoil associated with Britain leaving the EU. It is quite another to embrace all the turmoil that would follow from any attempt to interrupt or reverse the verdict of the referendum. Britain voted Out. This is the reality that almost all Conservatives agree must now be embraced, or if not embraced then at least lived with. How many Conservatives now argue, publicly, for the idea that Britain should somehow remain permanently as part of the EU, despite the crushing reality of the Brexit vote?

Yes, many Conservatives bitterly regret that the damn referendum even happened. And, the referendum having been held, many Conservatives still bitterly regret how the voters voted. But regretting how reality turned out is entirely different from believing that a serious attempt should be made to change reality back again to what it used to be but no longer is.

When I contemplate Brexit, my mind goes back to my extreme youth, when an argument still raged about whether what remained of the British Empire should be done away with. It was decided that the Empire should end, aside from a few anomolous fragments like the Falkland Islands. There were plenty of Conservatives who thought otherwise, and who regretted this decision to sail with what Prime Minister Harold MacMillan called the wind of change rather than against it. But, once the British Empire had been ended, only an absurd rump of Conservatives – they were known as the “Empire Loyalists” – then continued to argue that the British Empire should somehow be restored, and that even if it wasn’t ever restored, saying that it should be restored should be at the top of the list of things that Conservatives should be saying to the British electorate from then on.

The Empire Loyalists were, of course, ignored. It was time, in modern parlance, to “move on”. Instead, an alternative Empire was sought. Not an Empire that Britain could command unopposed, but at least an Empire. The descendants of the original Empire’s district commissioners, colonial administrators, bureaucrats and careerists and imperial goers-with-the-flow would have a new Raj to strut about in and to make their fortunes in. Britain wouldn’t have to go back to being “little” again. That, at any rate, was surely one of the ideas, however deluded it now appears, that got Britain into the EU in the first place, that being another reason to mention the old Empire in a piece about the EU.

Now, however, the Empire Loyalists are those sad souls who think it worth saying, again and again, as if saying this remains part of grown-up British politics, that Brexit was not only a mistake but that it should not be allowed to happen. Almost all of these new Empire Loyalists are now to be found on the left of British politics. My original title for this posting was “Brexit has unified the Conservative Party and divided Labour”. But, true though both of those claims are, what is happening on the left of British politics is far more complicated than merely that they are still quarrelling about Brexit. Brexit, for Labour, is but the tip of a huge iceberg of chaos. So I will set aside such thoughts about Labour for future postings here, which may or may not materialise.

I will also set aside any thoughts about what the Conservative Party might instead now decide to be divided about, now that their EU argument has ended. Further Conservative splits will surely happen.

I also have in mind to do a posting here, some time, maybe, about why, despite all kinds of doubts now being expressed by pessimistic Brexiteers, Brexit is now in the process of happening, and irreversibly so. I add this as yet unsupported opinion in case anyone thinks that I haven’t considered the possibility that Brexit won’t happen. I say: it will happen, and it is happening.

22 comments to How Brexit has unified the Conservative Party

  • David Cameron loved David Cameron far too much to intentionally lose, let alone be remembered as having made one of the most spectacular political miscalculations in British political history: I suspect “doing a Cameron” will become a catch phrase. A vastly better explanation is he was not nearly as smart as his apologists said he was.

  • Tony Harrison

    There is a whole generation of David Cameron lookalikes, small “l” Liberals who are really some form of social progressive, not really conservative at all. Exhibits a,b,c etc: Australia: Malcolm Turnbull, NZ: John Key, Canada: Justin Trudeau and so on. With the exception of John Key who is at least competent the others are pretty much interchangeable but share that infuriating paternalist trait. To the bin with the lot of them.

    From the other side of the world (NZ) Brexit was right up there with Trump / Hillary as providing arresting viewing while only tangentially being at risk of the consequences. Bear in mind that the Empire didn’t leave Britain, Britain left the Empire. Could you imagine the reactions if Britain unilaterally wiped all trade obstructions with all members of the commonwealth? I know they wont, but just imagine.

  • Patrick Crozier

    I’m pretty sure that Gorbachev was a true believer and likewise Cameron. I have a friend – who knows maybe it is the same friend – who for some time has been extolling Cameron as a “strategist”. The truth is he was nothing of the sort. He just got lucky before he got unlucky.

  • RAB

    Cameron was always a pretend Prime Minister… a completely conviction free zone. Like Perry says, he only ever believed in himself. He certainly didn’t believe in any Conservative values that may still be in existence. He thought he could do a Harold Wilson and pretend to get concessions and reforms from the EU when he didn’t even try. What he came back from Brussels with was utterly laughable, which for a PR man (which is all he has ever been)was a dreadful mistake that even our thickest citizens could see through. You at least have to make your lies plausible. He only called the Referendum in the first place because he thought Project Fear would subdue us into voting Remain, and to destroy his uppity Tory back benchers and UKIP.

    So now, as the heir to Blair, the faux socialist, Cameron, the faux Tory, fucks off instantly to make as much money as he possibly can, form whomsoever he can and where he can. Neither he, nor his hero and role model Blair gave a damn for the people of this country of ours, just out for themselves. So why do we keep being fooled again and again?

  • PhilB


    You are free to call anything you like whatever you like but you are deluded if you think the “Conservative” party is to the right of the Labour party or in any way, shape or form conservative.

    Stand in the corner of the room with your left side one foot away from the wall and your back similarly one foot away from the other wall. Try it in the biggest room you can find. You can then say that you are centrist or a “centre party” and the Labour party is to your left. The way the political parties define “the centre” is again, by anyones definition so skewed that you must have been snorting Oxyydol* to think otherwise.

    The Conservative party is functionally indistinguishable from the Labor Party. What is their stance on Grammar Schools? On reining back the welfare state? On “cuts” to public spending (and a slowdown in the rate of increase is NOT a “cut”, particularly if it exceeds the inflation rate)? On reducing the size and scope of the Civil Service and local Government? On deregulating and repealing laws? On strengthening the Armed Forces? Do you recall “The Bonffire of the Quangoes? How did that go, I wonder?

    No – family arguments are the most bitter and the spats between the Labour and Conservatives are feuding about the extents of the promises only. We have a two tier path to socialism – fast (Conservative) and express (labour). Neither of them are, in my opinion, better than the other.

    * Ask someone over aged 50 or thereabouts what Oxydol is.

  • Mr Ecks

    Camoron was an upper class cultural Marxist London Bubble prick.

    His party is full of them at the top who don’t give a rat’s arse what ordinary Tory members or voters or the British public want. Who are working to sabotage Brexit. Brian M is merely naïve if not actually delusional.

    BluLabour is now “led” by another in Camoron’s mould. Who is even thicker than the Heir to Bliar. Who is presently still full of BluLab leftist shite while playing dress-up as Thatcher 2. Not a good or stable combination.

  • Two things have changed. For all my life, Europe has divided the Tories (obvious in the run up to Margaret Thatcher’s ceasing to be PM) and the US has divided the Labour party (obvious in the run up to the second Iraq war). Now, Europe may somewhat divide the Labour party and definitely divides Labour from its former core voters, whom a smart UKIP (if only) could capture. Meanwhile, Brian is correct that there is now a realist argument for getting with the Brexit programme.

    Whether he is right that this has yet converted enough realist Tories (that is, enough traitor scum who should be shot – or ,as a worse punishment, forced to join the Labour party that they really belonged in from the start, rant, rant rant 🙂 ) is to be seen. the article Brian links to was written when a true leadership contest was expected (see its remarks like “This summer’s leadership contest, however, offers the party a chance to pick a leader capable, unlike Cameron, of persuading both hard-core Thatcherites and one-nation Tories .. .whoever wins that contest will, if they’ve got any sense, call a snap general election.” Nothing angers people like being promised something and then having it whisked away. The Tory party membership were looking forward greatly to a real leadership election – and then suddenly, it wasn’t happening any more.

    The upcoming party conference will be when we get a hint of the true state of affairs. Long-term, Brian is right that realists and true Tories could converge on the programme. But the Tory party is not incapable of blowing this historic opportunity.

  • Alsadius

    I think this actually explains May pretty well, from what little I know of her. She’s just going with the flow, and for the first time in a while, the flow is going the right way, so she’s effectively pretty good.

  • Watchman


    I am slightly mystified as to how the Conservatives, generally a party of lower tax and regualtions, are left-wing. They have a reasonable amount of belief in the free market, a distrust of redistribution and enough of a refusal to allow the economy to become the tool of government that I find myself able to vote for them a lot of the time. In economic terms they are clearly right wing, if not particuarly far to the right. And there seems to be your problem – you somehow manage to assume that just because you (and me, and most of us here) are much more right wing, occupying vast spaces to the right of the conservative party in economic terms, they must be to the left. But there are equally vast spaces to the left (indeed, even to the left of our current Labour party), and people there are regularly saying the same thing as you in reverse about left-wing politicians, because they are looking from their own perspective.

    We are extreme in our economic views. We may not be wrong (I seriously hope I’m not – I’d never hear the end of it from friends and family otherwise), but in terms of the current economic spectrum we are towards an extreme end.

    As to the social issues, you realise that it is stupid to use right and left wing, which are economic designators, here? Right wingers can legitimately argue against grammar schools (I do, because they would simply become hothouses for the sort of liberal-left entitled middle class children that public schools already specialise in – you need to encounter reality in education to get a proper education, and excluding the kids whose families don’t care is just going to make kids think socialistic fantasies are appealing, not nonsense). The argument about abortion (not something Phil mentions) is a ‘right-wing’ affair, where the statist (and in this case religious) view is firmly located on a perceived right wing, but libertarians who are also right wing tend to ally with feminists on this cause (personally I’d see this as a true test of libertarianism to be honest). As with most governments, the Conservatives tend towards a slight paternalism with a liberal (in good and bad senses) bent in social matters, but due to their economic views tend to be less interventionalist than left-wing governments. I can’t see right or left wing being very useful descriptions for social policies outside of the fact economic approaches influence views…

  • PhilB


    My cynical nature makes me look behind labels and rhetoric and examine their ACTIONS (both parties). I see little in what the Conservatives actually DO when they have the levers of power that makes me think that what they SAY and publish as election manifestos bears any resemblance to each other.

    They may not be as fast as the Labour party to institute a left wing ideology but their record in power does not persuade me that the end result will be different.

    As a classic example. look how many “conservative” MPs are vehemently against Grammar schools based on a meritocracy. I would need the Hubble telescope to detect any clear blue water between the Labour and Conservative views and then, I think it would be dubious.

    As a full disclosure, I am a Grammar schol boy. My parents were woring class (father a fitter and turner, mother a typist) and I pased the 11 plus and traveled about 10 miles across the city to the Grammar school from a council estate with a free “Scolars Bus Pass” issued by the local council. So how does being a “liberal-left entitled middle class” parent circumvent that process? Either their child passes an exam or they don’t and if not, no entry to the Grammar school.

    In short, the Grammar school need not, and indeed MUST not rely on a geographically limited catchment area. Some of the pupils that attended the school traveled even greater distances involving two or three changes of bus. Ashington lies 15 miles north of Newcastle Upon Tyne and from the bus terminus in Newcastle, it was another 6 miles to the school via a second bus but the pupils did it.

    Your describe the Conservatives as being paternalistic. I take it that by paternalistic you mean the dictionary definition:-

    “the system, principle, or practice of managing or governing individuals, businesses, nations, etc., in the manner of a father dealing benevolently and often intrusively with his children”

    And how, pray is this different except in degree as a version of full state control and micromanaging of the population? And “more of the same” State control leads to …. what?

  • Runcie Balspune

    Gorbachev was a true believer, but he got power in an age of realpolitik and once Reagan announced orbital ABM platforms, probably using the new Shuttle, he knew the game was up, the Soviets would lose their second strike option within a few years, he could either advance to war or try and prepare for peace, he might have been a die hared commie but he loved his children too.

    Cameron was just a dick in a suit.

  • Tarrou

    I do agree that it was essential for Brexit for Cameron to do the referendum (obviously) and then oppose it. But you can count on this, any calculation which results in a career politician losing the most powerful post in the land was not planned. At least not by him. Cameron fell victim to the allure of procrastination. I think he thought that if he put off the referendum he had promised for a few years, the furor would die down. In reality, if he had called it immediately, it would have gone down in flames. By waiting five or six years, he inadvertently gave time for the various financial crises to play out, the migrant wave to happen, the Rotherham story to break and all sorts of things. From the outsider’s view, I don’t think Britain was ready for Brexit in ’09 or ’10, but by ’16 they sure as fuck were.

  • I broadly agree with Tarrou’s analysis.

  • staghounds

    For how many months now has your government not done what the referendum commanded?

    There won’t be any brexit.

  • staghounds, it will be mildly amusing to see you eat your words when Article 50 gets triggered next year.

  • Roue le Jour

    Excellent piece, Brian. I would like to add that without Brown keeping Britain out of the Euro, Brexit would not have been feasible. So maybe he was right about history being kinder to him.

  • I just heard, on the telly, the leader of the Lib Dems repeat his support for a return by Britain to the EU. Other Lib Dems on the same show are echoing him. The Empire Loyalists of our time. They’ll attract a small lump of enthusiasts, who will spend the rest of their lives insisting that they were right to oppose Brexit. And everyone else will watch and say: so what? Even most of those who voted Remain themselves. Regret is not a policy.

  • Paul Marks

    I can not stand this term “Brexit” – if people mean British independence that is what they should say.

    And British independence means that (even increasing) E.U. regulations will no longer apply in our internal British dealings and we no longer apply on our trade with third parties outside the E.U.

    Will the government deliver independence – or will submit to establishment (Economist magazine and so on) demands to stay in the “Single Market” – i.e. subject to all E.U. regulations.

    I do not know – I just do not know.

  • Nicholas (Unlicensed Joker!) Gray

    “Done a Cameron” can go up there with “a man oughta know his limitations!” It can be used for any occasion where people ‘shoot themselves in the foot’, etc. How’s that for a legacy?

  • James Waterton

    For how many months now has your government not done what the referendum commanded?

    There won’t be any brexit.

    Nonsense. Securing “Brexit” is, in practice, highly complex and experimental political neurosurgery. It can’t just be “done”. Say what you will about Theresa May, but she clearly means to lead Britain out of the EU. Her selection of a figure like David Davis to act as neurosurgeon and the pointed sidelining of Boris Johnson, left to play the clown doctor, is a deafening statement of deadly serious intent.

    Think about it for a second. Knobbling the UK’s exit from the EU would be a fairly simple matter if that’s what the May government was fixing to do. But if that were the case, it is going about it in a bloody funny way, relegating this relatively easy task to the extraordinarily difficult – and probably politically suicidal – basket.

    Alternatively, a certain shaving implement belonging to Mr Ockham could be used to deduce what’s driving the post-Brexit, post-Cameron UK government.