BARNABY TOWNS: Brexit wreckers threaten everything

Boris Johnson speaks at a rally with Priti Patel and Michael Gove (right) in front of the Vote Leave

Boris Johnson speaks at a rally with Priti Patel and Michael Gove (right) in front of the Vote Leave bus. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA. - Credit: PA Archive/PA Images

The price Leavers are prepared to pay to deliver Brexit threatens everything. But, as BARNABY TOWNS explains, the extreme politics of the new government could actually provide hope for pro-EU campaigners.

While no-one was surprised that Boris Johnson won the Tory leadership election, becoming Prime Minister on the votes of fewer than 100,000 Conservative Party members, perhaps the most striking feature of this contest was how far nationalism has taken hold of a once pro-European party. More than a choice between candidates who had, respectively, compared the European Union to the Nazis and the Soviet Union, polling revealed how Tory members value severing all ties with our European partners above almost anything else.

Fully two-thirds of party members favour a no-deal crash out from the EU — far higher than the 30% of the electorate who claim to back that approach, and more even than those who wish to leave among the population as a whole. Six in 10 members supported the Brexit Party rather than their own in the European elections, according to Tory pollster Lord Ashcroft. Nearly half would be prepared to have Nigel Farage as party leader, and two-thirds back a Tory-Brexit Party general election pact, according to YouGov.

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But this Brexit obsession doesn't end there. Nearly two in three Tory members are prepared to accept Scottish independence to get Brexit, and six in 10 would still back Brexit even if it meant a united Ireland. Six in 10 said they would not be dissuaded if Brexit caused "significant damage" to the UK economy. Such is the determination of true-believers, more than half of whom are prepared to countenance the party's complete destruction to achieve Brexit. In sum, YouGov's findings reveal a slash-and-burn approach that should alarm every mainstream voter and political party member.

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A new clock on the wall at Conservative Campaign Headquarters counting down to October 31st as the UK's leaving date, with or without a deal, is indicative of the new regime's mindset. Yet a number of obstacles to this simplistic, single-minded, self-harming approach remain.

First is the Tory-DUP majority, now cut to one following the Brecon & Radnorshire by-election—and threatened by further potential defections. Second is a significant minority of Tory MPs, Leavers as well as Remainers, who are not prepared to accept the economic damage and political rupture involved in simply crashing out of the EU. And third is the fact that 'no deal' is simply a state of mind, not an actual destination.

The question isn't whether the UK could leave without a deal—half our trade comes from the European single market that the Conservatives used to support as a vital source of investment and jobs. Instead, the choice is three-fold. Is a deal secured while the UK remains a member of the EU, or will we go cap in hand in a much less favourable position after having left, and therefore with far less leverage? Alternatively, if the public is allowed to express its view again through a new referendum or general election, then polling from YouGov and BMG finds a majority at about 54% for Remain.

Beyond British obstacles to the new government's fixation with abandoning the world's largest transnational free trade area, there is the fact that the EU has already offered a deal which is not open to renegotiation in any substantive way. Far from being intransigent, the EU has sought to accommodate self-defeating red lines from the previous administration forsaking UK participation in the lucrative internal market inside the customs union. Yes, participating in these outside of the EU involve being a rule-taker. But there is the option of remaining with a vote, a voice and a veto.

Perhaps hope for pro-Europeans lies in the extremism of the current administration. Out go those perceived to be not fully signed up to the new regime, including hardcore Brexiteers. Just as Theresa May's hard Brexit plan is insufficiently pure for the guardians of the true faith, so now any critical eye cast upon wrenching the nation out of decades of carefully calibrated treaty negotiations to an artificially set deadline is guilty of gloom and doom—rather than recognised as providing a necessary reality check.

Pro-Europeans in parliament have faced many front bench obstacles to trying to prevent a no-deal catastrophe, and are having to be increasingly creative to find a constructive solution. But if they can find the strength to put country before party, there is hope that the Article 50 deadline can be put to one side. Or a referendum or general election could sufficiently change the weather to allow sensible strategic options to be considered, instead of the crumbling debris of campaign slogans and charlatans' ambitions.

- Barnaby Towns is a former Conservative Party special adviser.

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