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Brexit, Chequers and the Conservatives: where do we go from here?

1st August 2018

Ed Lavelle, Junior Account Executive, and Josh Butler, Account Executive, of the Grayling London Public Affairs team explore the Conservative Party’s Brexit conundrum.

Following the Chequers Summit, one could have been forgiven for thinking that the Prime Minister had healed divisions, perhaps not in her party, but at least in the Cabinet. Collective responsibility was seemingly restored as the Brexit big-hitters stood behind the Government’s ‘soft’ Brexit agreement. Theresa May appeared to have defied her critics by achieving the impossible: a clear Brexit strategy backed by both wings of her Cabinet, beginning to heal the deep, vocal divisions which have plagued the Conservative Party in recent weeks, months and years. Following Chequers, it seemed at least possible that the Government would smoothly sail into the summer recess.

Yet the rocky road that is Brexit resurfaced, as the Government subsequently descended into turmoil. Within a week, the two highest profile Cabinet Brexiteers, David Davis and Boris Johnson, resigned, whilst a string of Ministers followed suit. The untenability, or otherwise, of the Prime Minister’s position was once again called into question, as the Conservative Party continued to play out its bitter divisions in the public eye.

Clearly, the Chequers agreement has not been the unifying force the Prime Minister hoped for.  Yet the absence of a leadership challenge and the parliamentary recess means her position is safe – for now. As we move into Autumn, Brexit will continue to dominate the political agenda, with the upcoming European Council meeting scheduled only a week before the Conservative Party conference and the informal deadline for a proposed deal creeping ever closer. Whether a solution can be found that the Conservative Party, and the Prime Minister, are able to at least tolerate, is unclear.

The Europe question has plagued Conservative Prime Ministers for more than half a century: from Macmillan’s failed attempts to join the EEC in 1961, to Major’s signing of the Maastricht Treaty.  The Conservative Party has found itself repeatedly torn between a commitment to greater European integration and devotion to supposed national independence. In 2006, in his first conference speech as leader, David Cameron famously said that the party must stop “banging on” about Europe. It was ironic then that, by calling the referendum, Europe ended up as the defining issue of his premiership and of the Conservatives for the foreseeable future.

Where the Conservative Party goes from here is an interesting question. Neither a ‘soft’ approach, as currently being pursued by the Prime Minister, nor a ‘hard’ exit, supported by the Brexiteers, have sufficient support either in the party or in the Commons chamber.

Yet May’s legacy rests on finding some consensus: as otherwise the Brexit negotiations, her own premiership, and possibly even the Conservative Party itself, are in danger. Where this consensus could come from is uncertain. There have been calls for ‘soft Remainers’ on all sides of the chamber to work together to ensure a ‘soft’ Brexit. However, such a break in party unity would lead to chasms through the two major parties, with the potential for a split leading to a new third party, or the strengthening of a hardline UKIP-like group. Meanwhile, a ‘hard’ Brexit consensus seems unlikely, particularly given that the Labour Party’s stated position is in favour of a “comprehensive customs union”.

Could it be that the mounting calls for a second referendum end up winning out? The author Robert Harris suspects as much, saying recently that it wouldn’t be “for any noble reason, but because MPs will desperately want to hand the screaming, defecating, vomiting baby back to its parents — the electorate — & let them decide what to do with it”.

What is clear is that there is no easy answer for the Prime Minister or the Conservative Party. With the negotiations in Autumn, party conference and the long awaited parliamentary vote to come, whether May can pull the rabbit from the hat to save her premiership, her party and arguably her country, very much remains to be seen.

Grayling Team

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