Why Conservatives Must Speak Less About Brexit
Last week was meant to be about remembrance. The centenary of the end of WWI, one of the bloodiest, most horrific conflicts in history, was to be an occasion for the nation to come together to mourn its fallen and honour its heroes; to remember, in the words of Larkin, ‘those long uneven lines’, and mourn ‘such innocence […] as changed itself to past without a word’. It was not to be. Instead of sombre poignancy we got a week of Remainers, Brexiteers, and Democratic Unionists endeavouring each to shriek more loudly than the other, much like baby triplets screaming for their mother’s attention.
Yet the fault for this is not to be sought with the individual actors. As questionable as their attention-seeking antics may have seemed—from the exaggerated reactions of the DUP and Boris Johnson’s constant hyperbolic commentary to Jo Johnson’s over-dramatic resignation—such outbursts are reliable ways to make their voices heard and their presence felt. The DUP, little heard of since the initial furore over its informal coalition with the Conservatives had died down, managed to re-gain the front page of The Times—and in a context that allowed the party to strengthen its claim to ‘defender’ of Northern Ireland. The Johnson brothers, both scarce having been featured outside the Telegraph in many months, not only received days of press coverage, but extensive opportunities to attack their mutual foe—the Prime Minister. Participation in the Brexit show often yields great rewards.
Nor does the blame lie entirely in Fleet Street. If normal British political life is a grand historical novel, the Brexit show more closely resembles a cheap novelette. From the Johnson brothers to Soubry, from May to Juncker, serious political figures quickly become mono-dimensional caricatures of themselves not only on the written page, but in the public imagination. Erstwhile friends become enemies; enemies, friends; foes, allies; and allies, foes, in a matter of days. All this makes for exciting reading, justifying the grandiose headlines so beloved by editors and publishers more concerned with circulation and revenue than with information and truth.
Yet the media’s single-minded obsession with Brexit, though particularly keenly felt this week, has had deleterious consequences for political discourse and policy in this country for the past two years. Issues that ought to be pre-eminent in the minds of voters and politicians, from healthcare and housing to work and taxation, have received very little attention from the government. More dismayingly still, the few major announcements in these areas—including, respectively: a £20bn cash injection for the NHS; an abolition of the borrowing cap for local authorities that will allow thousands of new affordable and social homes to be built; the pledge of £125m invested in better apprenticeships; and a freeze on fuel, beer, and spirits—have been met, at best, with a few perfunctorily congratulatory editorials—and, at worst, with complete disinterest.
There is little that demonstrates the Brexit-caused impotence of our political system as well as a simple comparison between the 2015 Parliament and our current one. Under Cameron’s last Parliament, we saw—to mention but four of the greatest achievements to come from his premiership—tax cuts for low and middle earners; the decisions to build HS2 and expand Heathrow; the building of hundreds of new free schools and academies; and a new, more robust foreign policy re-asserting Britain’s position in the world. Yet, in the past year-and-a-half, the counterparts to the remarkable successes of Cameron’s government on taxation, infrastructure, education, and foreign policy have been, respectively: a rise in the total tax burden as a share of the GDP; cancellations of planned railway upgrade programmes; minor changes to the way student loans are repaid; and a seeming penchant—admittedly due in part to the PM’s choice of Foreign Secretary—for alienating allies and failing to make new friends on the international stage.
Nor does the immediate future look much brighter. With all wings of the party, from Soubry to Rees-Mogg, concentrating entirely on Brexit, no serious new policy proposals are forthcoming. Worse still, Corbyn’s Labour Party is de facto, therefore being allowed to dictate the terms of political discourse in the media and amongst the public. Tories’ nonchalance about everything other than Brexit is not merely a path to stagnation; it is, rather, a reckless surrender of power to a party intent on taking this country back to the dark days of the socialist 1970s. It is not only politically foolish—it is morally irresponsible; and, quite simply, unconservative.
Brexit will, for as long as it is in train, remain an important and hotly debated issue. It would be helpful neither to country nor party to ignore the fact that we are leaving the European Union, or to avoid discussion about the way this is to be carried out. But in media stat virtus: pre-eminence is one thing—complete domination quite another. As the party of government, the onus is on the Conservatives to ensure that it not be allowed to eclipse everything else towards which we have been working. It is in the interest of Great Britain, and the interest of the Conservatives, that we all speak less about Brexit.