Major Warning: Brexit Arrogance Might Bite Theresa May at the Ballot Box

Following on from Tony Blair, another former prime minister has entered the Brexit debate: John Major once again got on his soap box for a heartfelt and passionate speech at Chatham House, addressing the continuing concerns of the 48% and reminding many that not all Conservatives are Brexiteers.

In an effort to appear unified, the Conservatives have been giving the impression that they are trying to stifle dissent, claiming that any deviation from the view that Brexit will lead to an economic and social Utopia is threatening the very foundation of the state.

Considering Theresa May’s current polling I believe she can survive the odd bit of criticism.

Major had claimed quite reasonably that he was offering a ‘reality check’ and that those who disagreed with Brexit should not be conscripted into feeling that they need to ‘toe-the line’ and stay silent if they disagreed. Yet the Brexiteers were predictably baying for blood in reaction to the speech. 

For a quiet man Iain Duncan Smith was surprisingly loud in his condemnation of the speech, trying to discredit the former Prime Minister by labelling him ‘strangely bitter’. The usually rabidly partisan Jacob Rees-Mogg criticised Major for a ‘craven and defeated speech’.

Brexiteers are taking Remainers’ votes for granted. Much has been written about the huge support for Leave in the Labour’s working-class Northern seats and most of the peripheral Tory shire seats as well. However, it easy to forget that outside London and Scotland one of the areas with the highest remain vote was the prosperous commuter belt of the Tory South East.

The press has been eager to attack MPs for ‘betrayal’ who voted against their constituents and the nation’s wishes, but there are plenty of examples on the other side, seats that voted Remain but whose MP voted for triggering article 50.

It is curious that Redwood doesn’t feel dictated to by his constituents and happy to vote with his conscience

In one category are those Tory MPs who backed Remain but switched, citing the ‘national will’ even if it contradicted their own local constituents as well as their own opinion. Prominent amongst these is the Prime Minister herself whose own constituency of Maidenhead voted against Brexit. But there are plenty of other examples across Hertfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Surrey and Kent who might not be happy about their MP’s switch to Leave.

Then there are those active Brexiteers who voted against their constituent’s wishes including MPs for Hart, Wycombe and St Albans as well as Wokingham, currently represented by the well-known Brexiteer John Redwood.

Wokingham itself voted convincingly Remain: local opposition already has the knives out for Redwood claiming he is ‘out of touch’ and calling on him to resign, perhaps foreshadowing the next general election. It is curious that Redwood doesn’t feel dictated to by his constituents and happy to vote with his conscience, a luxury seemingly denied to Conservative Remain MPs bar Ken Clarke.

One other important aspect of the speech is the fact that the ‘will of the people evolves’. With Theresa May and most of the Parliamentary Party willing to sacrifice national interest in their puritanical desire to appease the 52%, they may find uncomfortable truths in their own backyard.

If Brexit starts to hurt the pockets of wealthier commuters in the populous Home Counties, they may change their mind about the necessity of Brexit, or at least a hard Brexit, and vote accordingly.

It is sometimes overlooked that a large number of seats in the South East that backed Brexit often did on extremely small margins, often far smaller than those further afield. Even Michael Gove’s own constituency of Surrey Heath saw a slightly smaller margin of victory for Leave than the national average at 51% Leave to 49% Remain.

As Sir John said it would be politically ‘unwise’ to not take into account changing opinion. The Conservatives ignore these voters at their cost and cannot take them for granted, particularly in these times of political flux which may see politics realign.

It may turn out these areas are as much flashpoints for change, not outright revolt, as the working-class northern heartlands, particularly if southern voters feel their voices are not being listened to. Theresa May and the Conservative party are popular but that is not set in stone, especially as Brexit has not happened yet.

 Major seems to have realised something that the Conservative Parliamentary Party has not

Another point of Major’s speech is his realisation of Britain’s changing international role post-Brexit. A lot of Leave voters may not care about Britain’s international standing but the leading Brexiteers do. Many harbour a delusional nostalgia for imperial Britain and seem to assume that we are going to resurrect this long lost ‘gloire’ by closer ties with the Commonwealth.

The problem is that economics doesn’t work like that: we already have trade deals with 48 out of 52 members of the Commonwealth and Germany exports more to many of them than Britain whilst remaining within the EU.

‘Committed Atlanticists’ may relish the prospect of being the ‘American echo’ mentioned in Major’s speech. However, unlike them, the former prime minister is aware that this is ‘not a union of equals’ and, if we do not want to be forever bullied by Trump’s America, we may want to rethink our diplomatic as well as economic priorities.

Although attacked in the press, Major seems to have realised something that the Conservative Parliamentary Party has not: there are still many in the country - many Conservative supporters - who still do not believe that Brexit is going to be wonderful and are willing to have a dissenting opinion. Telling them to shut up and accept the result come what may, whatever problems it creates, is not promoting a healthy political atmosphere in Brexit Britain, something that may come back to bite them at the ballot box further down the line.

More about the author

About the author

Stewart holds a PhD in eighteenth century political history from UCL, having previously studied for a BA and MA in history at Royal Holloway, University of London. 

He is currently working as a Part-Time Tutor for Oxford University’s Continuing Education Department as well as helping to create and launch an online historical archive of magazine-style feature articles written by history graduates called The Past.

Follow Stewart on Twitter.

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