Tim Bale is Professor of Politics at Queen Mary University of London and author of ‘The Conservative Party from Thatcher to Cameron’ (a new edition of which will be published in September).
It’s an ill wind, they say, that blows nobody any good. Whatever Brexit means for Britain, it could turn out to be the best thing that’s happened to the Conservative Party in decades – as long, that is, as it works hard to show that it’s keeping the promises made by the Leave campaign.
It would be absurd to imagine that the next few years are going to be a walk in the park for the Tories: you can’t undo forty years of EU membership, as well as recast your trading relationship with the rest of the world, without some pretty major disagreements flaring up between friends, let alone enemies.
But just think for a moment of what might have happened had Remain pulled off a narrow win. In that case, the party would have carried on ripping itself apart over the issue that has done most to divide and distract it for over half a century.
Leaving the EU, however, could eventually see the emergence of a more cohesive, more coherent, and more popular Conservative Party – one capable of facing up more honestly, and maybe more effectively, to some of the serious economic and social challenges facing the nation.
Although he pulled the Tories back from the brink and won them two elections in a row, David Cameron never quite convinced them that he was their kind of Conservative.
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 – and of course the voters, too – that he or she is the right man or woman for the job.
Moreover, whoever wins that contest will, if they’ve got any sense, call a snap general election. A big win would deliver not just the personal mandate Gordon Brown mistakenly never went for but also the kind of Commons majority that navigating and negotiating Brexit is surely bound to require.
It doesn’t take a genius to work out that going to the country sooner rather than later makes more cynical sense too. Why give Labour, especially if by some miracle it manages to rid itself of Jeremy Corbyn, time to try and reconnect with voters? And why give those same voters the time to realise that many of the promises made to them by Leave campaigners on immigration and public spending are going to be difficult to keep – at least in full – in an open economy that’s still (George Osborne or no George Osborne) operating in an age of austerity?
That said, if whoever takes over from David Cameron has even a modicum of Machiavelli about them, they will also do their absolute damnedest to show they’re genuinely trying both to ‘take back control’ of Britain’s borders and to use the supposed financial premium for Brexit to help pull the NHS out of the slow-motion nose-dive that many people working for it now clearly believe that it’s in.
The prize for pulling off that particular trick would be two-fold – and tremendous. First up, it might help to restore some desperately needed trust in our so-called political class. Whatever else voters were doing on Thursday they were sending a message to politicians on all sides that they’re fed up to the back teeth of feeling ignored and even lied to. The rewards that will go to a mainstream party of government that manages to combine responsiveness with responsibility are potentially immense. Conversely, reneging on those promises by pretending they were never made, as some Tory Leavers are sadly already doing, could (and arguably should) prove fatal.
Secondly, being seen to control migration at the same time as protecting public services might help the Tories get back to the position that made them the envy of many of their centre-right counterparts in Europe – a continent of which we are, let’s not pretend, still inevitably very much a part. Many of those parties have bled, and are still bleeding, support to populist challenger parties on their far right flank. That was something which the Tories had always managed to avoid throughout their long and illustrious history – until, that is, UKIP came along.
But now the Tories are taking us out of the EU. If, in so doing, they can also achieve some semblance of a grip on immigration and protect public services, then they may well be able to wipe the Cheshire-cat grin off Nigel Farage’s face, leaving his ‘people’s army’ no place else to go but the extreme fringes of politics that, in a first-past-the-post system like ours, traditionally offer very little electoral joy to their inhabitants.
Finally, and perhaps even more importantly, the EU had become a cat that the Conservatives spent far too much time kicking – a scapegoat that for too long freed them from the need to come up with innovative and effective policies to tackle Britain’s balance of payments and productivity problems, its social care and housing crises, and its increasingly chronic lack of social mobility. Leaving takes away an all-too-convenient excuse. That can only be a good thing – for all of us.