Brexit Will Tear Both the Tories and Labour Apart

Be careful what you wish for.

For decades voters have gone through the occasional spasm of revolt against the two party stranglehold. They have flirted, in turn, with Liberals, the SDP, the Greens, Cleggmania then UKIP.

At every point, Britain’s creaking political system has rescued the two party state. At the last election, the two parties fought off challenges to record their highest combined vote in years. Even Scotland’s love affair with the SNP seems to be waning.

Labour’s gains in Remain areas, such as Canterbury and Kensingston, is well-documented. The post-election narrative hides that working-class voters shifted towards the Conservatives. Both are extraordinary. Though only one benefitted either party.

Theresa May’s early election was a gamble that hoped to take advantage of this fracture. In the end, she became its victim.

It might be that her cruelly slow demise is just the beginning. It is not just the external contradictions that threatens both parties but their internal divides. However it pans out, Brexit will be too be too big to contain them.

At some point the Cabinet are going to have to come down on one side

Brexit negotiations have only just begun. Until now the Cabinet have been able to talk about the negotiations in sweeping, generalised terms. Theresa’s May’s conference speech is a fine example of that: she declared that EU court would no longer have jurisdiction over Britain. It was a position that kept her party happy. It might not be a position that withstands negotiations over trade rules or EU nationals' rights in post-Brexit UK.

The government have been able to deride large figures coming out of Brussels about the divorce bill. That is the easy bit. It becomes slightly harder now that they have published their own figure. John Redwood has already stated that Britain is under no legal obligation to pay any bill. How will he feel if David Davis is forced to increase this amount in order to move the agenda beyond the break-up?

By putting leading Leave campaigners in charge of Brexit, May hoped that they would own the Brexit reality. However, those languising on the backbenches are under no obligation to reality. With Nigel Farage threatening to return to frontline politics, more hardline MPs will get worried that the silver bullet that felled Ukip was mere brass.

There will be a choice: trade or control. At some point the Cabinet are going to have to come down on one side.

The danger of Conservative implosion has greatly increased since May failed to win a majority. She is at risk of opportunism. The more hardline the stance, the greater the favour any challenger will receive from Conservative members. How else do we explain the alleged popularity of Jacob Rees-Mogg?

Across the aisle, Labour is fumbling badly towards a fixed position they can hold for more than a few hours. Corbyn’s core group clearly wants to rule out Single Market membership. John McDonnell has spoken both in favour of it and against it. They may not be under as great a scrutiny as the government but they can only go for so long papering cracks and avoiding talking about it.

The leader’s media allies may talk about Brexit in terms of its electoral politics but that merely shows that their immaturity is as great as Tory Brexiters. Were the government to fall and Corbyn to find himself in Downing Street, his position would fall apart before he had time to chose the new wallpaper.

There is a large group of Labour MPs who are wary of Labour’s Brexit stance but are no longer prepared to challenge a more confident Corbyn. They might be prepared to cynically back a rightwards shift on immigration but they can see past a cake-and-eat-it policy. By pretending that leaving the Single Market can mean frictionless trade, he is denying his “jobs-first Brexit” slogan.

His voters might not care right now. They might never care. Who knows? But they will care if if he does not lead a party fit for government.

Already Corbyn has sacked frontbenchers. It would be surprising were May - or any successor - to survive Brexit without ministerial resignations. Soon those who oppose their leadership’s policies are going to have to decide what comes first: tribe or country.

Each fragile tribe is home to Remain and Leave voters

All of this is before Brexit has come into sustained contact with the electorate. It might be that 2017 is seen as yet another phoney war in the Brexit debacle.

When May called her election it was not just because the gamble for a landslide seemed little risk. It was because a 2020 election - after she had bowed to the inevitability of a transition period - was too great a risk for a cautious politician. Now the Conservative’s weakness means that the next election might be when Brexit has taken place or it might be during a transition. Either has obvious consequences for both parties.

Each fragile tribe is home to Remain and Leave voters. They are each threatened by other parties whether it be the SNP and the Lib Dems, or Ukip. Why should voter volality stop in 2017?

These coalitions have withstood previous flirtations. But Brexit has been consummated.

What happens when parties can no longer deny the obvious is anyone’s guess. But break-up is often a consequence of hasty marriage. Then it gets messy.  

More about the author

About the author

Educated at Durham University and UCL, Graham is Disclaimer's editor and a regular contributor. He has written for numerous publications including Tribune, Out Magazine and Vice. He has also contributed to two books of political counterfactuals for Biteback Media, Prime Minister Boris (2011) and Prime Minister Corbyn (2016).

A democratic republican lefty, he struggles daily with the conflict between his ingrained senses of idealism and pragmatism.

Follow Graham on Twitter.

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