How Dublin ran rings round May on Brexit and the Northern Ireland border

Tony Connelly describes in painful detail the success of Irish negotiators in aligning themselves with the EU27, while leaving the Brits to flounder.

Brexit and Ireland: The Dangers, the Opportunities, and the Inside Story of the Irish Response by Tony Connelly

Boris Johnson expressed enthusiasm for this book when interviewed the other day by ConHome, though I have just listened to the tape again, and find he must have done so after I turned it off.

We were discussing how much better prepared ministers and officials in Dublin were for Brexit than their opposite numbers in London.

Connelly, who lives in Brussels and has been reporting on Europe for RTE for the last 17 years, unfortunately provides ample evidence for this view. The Irish knew the referendum held on 23rd June 2016 could go either way and prepared accordingly.

I recall hearing a lucid and persuasive speech by Dan Mulhall, then Irish Ambassador in London, now their man in Washington, at an Irish Embassy reception, in which he outlined the devastating effects which Brexit could have not only on the Irish economy, but on relations between the Republic and the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland.

It was plain then that there was a conservative, or Burkean, case for remaining in the EU, as an imperfect accretion of laws and customs which although impossible to defend in strict democratic theory, were in some ways well adapted to the circumstances of Irish and British politics.

At the start of Connelly’s account, the Irish Prime Minister, Enda Kenny, tries to warn David Cameron that

“referendums are different to general elections. People don’t fear the consequences of a general election. We have some experience of this kind of thing.”

Dublin had a few years before held a second referendum on the Lisbon Treaty in order to undo the rejection of it in the first. Micheal Martin, the Leader of Fianna Fail, who ran the campaign in the second referendum, says they learned a lot from their exhaustive research into what went wrong first time round, and realised the message now had to be:

“We’ve heard you, we’ve listened to you, we’ve done the changes because of your message.”

It is not clear the advocates of a second referendum on this side of the Irish Sea have realised they need a message like that. If they are not careful, they will be found to be telling the British people, “We have not listened to you, and consider you to be a lot of ignorant fools who had better now do exactly as we tell you.”

After the British voted for Brexit, Irish ministers became frustrated by jockeying in London between Boris Johnson, Liam Fox and David Davis, and the consequent inability to determine the British Government’s position:

“Worse than the jockeying was the fact that they had different messages. That was of no use to us. We were trying to establish what exactly they wanted.”

There had been no preparatory analysis in London of the problems Brexit would pose and the choices which would need to be made. Nor did Irish leaders find, when they met Theresa May, that she was communicative. “She was very, very cautious,” as an Irish official puts it.

At the outset, the Irish expected to solve some difficulties through bilateral talks with the British Government, and others by negotiating as part of the EU 27 with London. But by the end of 2016, as Connelly relates,

“The Irish government was realising that if Irish and European Commission officials were working away diligently, scoping out technical solutions, looking at ways of getting around customs checks and requirements regarding animal health, food safety and rules of origin as a way to soften the Irish border, then the main beneficiary was the UK.

“Having come to this realisation, the Irish undertook a subtle distancing from London. It began at the end of 2016 and was increasingly discernible in the first part of 2017.”

The Irish stopped trying to solve the British Government’s problems, notably over the Northern Ireland border, and instead aligned themselves completely with the EU 27. As Connelly puts it,

“There would be two steps: fully apprising the EU of the complexities of the Northern Ireland peace process, and then turning the Irish position into the European position.”

Michel Barnier already has considerable experience of the complexities of Northern Ireland politics, for as an EU Commissioner he oversaw between 1999 and 2004 “the spending of 531 million euros in EU funding for Northern Ireland under the PEACE II programme, as well as tens of millions of euros in regional and structural payments”.

The EU became a kind of imperial power (not a word used by Connelly), more trusted, or at least more accepted, because it was more remote, and seemed therefore more neutral. Barnier sees himself as a benevolent proconsul: “He spoke fondly about the 13 million euro Peace Bridge in Derry, part funded by Brussels.”

The Irish are brilliant at manipulating the imperial power, while the British, having quite recently been an imperial power themselves, are enraged by its claim of ultimate authority, and have voted to liberate themselves. How one wishes the late lamented T.E.Utley, blind seer of The Daily Telegraph, could bring his wisdom to bear on these paradoxes. Who now in the London press has any understanding of, let alone sympathy with, Ulster Unionism in its various manifestations?

In Brussels, the Irish lobbied Barnier’s Task Force intensively. As a source tells Connelly,

“The Irish had privileged access… For other stakeholders the criteria had to be that it was a pan-European association… The Irish came well prepared, and with a wish-list. They were impressively well prepared… A number of them could have worked for the Task Force straight away.”

The Irish had done their homework, and knew what they wanted. The British had not done their homework, appeared to want to have their cake and eat it, and found themselves steered towards the major problem which emerged in November 2017, when they were told that in order to avoid a hard border, Northern Ireland will have to remain de facto inside the single market and the customs union.

Connelly’s book is almost 400 pages long, first appeared in 2017 and was updated in May this year. It contains some vivid reporting about the threat posed by Brexit to the Irish beef, lamb, milk, cheese, fish, mushroom, duck and racing industries. For the general reader, it contains too much.

From September 2017, “gruelling sessions” were held in Brussels to examine how the 142 different dimensions to North-South co-operation on the island of Ireland relate, if at all, to EU law. Even to read about this stuff is quite gruelling. As a reporter, one has to get to grips with at least some of the detail, then cultivate people who are prepared to tell one what it all means, and Connelly clearly has an admirable range of Irish and Brussels sources.

For the British reader, it is painful to be reminded at such length that under May’s insultingly opaque leadership, our Government has never worked out how to operate as a team, for a long time did not get to grips with the detail, and then did not realise what it meant, or at least refused to be candid about what it meant, until very late in the day, and is in many ways not being candid now.

The trouble with not being candid with the wider world is that there is then a temptation not even to be candid with oneself.

The Prime Minister’s run-out-the-clock strategy on Brexit helps Corbyn too

The Labour leader is under mounting pressure to support a second referendum – but time is against one, and he knows it.

Whilst the internal battle waging in the Conservative Party over Brexit is making all the headlines at the moment, the struggle in the Labour Party should not be overlooked.

It’s unusual because it cuts across the usual split in the Opposition, which is between the leadership and membership on the one hand and the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) on the other.

On Brexit, however, the membership is much more in tune with Labour’s overwhelmingly Europhile MPs. This means that whilst those around Jeremy Corbyn might want Brexit – and it’s clear many of them do, not least because it will end a lot of legal restrictions on a hard-left economic programme – they can’t say so openly.

The result has been a campaign of misdirection and procrastination, chronicled so well by Tim Shipman in All Out War, and waged so effectively during the campaign that our editor named Seumas Milne as ‘The Sixth Person who Made Brexit Happen’.

As March 29th looms and the battle for Brexit enters its final stages, Corbyn is coming under mounting pressure to endorse a second referendum. John McDonnell, his close ally and the more adept politician of the pair, has been signalling a willingness to rethink.

But the Labour leader has good reason to hesitate, and not just because he might personally support Brexit. There is also the fact that any clarification of Labour’s Brexit position risks undercutting its electoral coalition just before a snap general election which would almost certainly have to precede any re-run of the referendum.

Yes, a majority of Labour voters back Remain. But a substantial portion are not, and one of the few bright points for the Tories in the 2017 election was the emerging evidence that Labour-inclined Leave voters can be persuaded to vote for the Conservatives as ‘the party of Brexit’.

Until now, Labour has been luxuriating in the ability, as the opposition, to avoid having to be precise about what its Brexit position is. This was made plain earlier this week in Channel 4’s TV debate, when James Cleverly skewered Barry Gardiner over the latter’s contradictory, almost utopian account of how the negotiations on the future relationship would go if only Jeremy Corbyn, and not Theresa May, were pressing the flesh in Brussels and Salzburg.

The evidence suggests that Corbyn’s strategy, which is perfectly sensible if somewhat cynical, is simply to allow Brexit to happen without having to dirty his hands in the process. If this is the case then the Prime Minister’s “run out the clock” strategy – playing for time until the only options are her deal or none – actually suits him. By avoiding a reckoning on the Withdrawal Agreement the Government has postponed the hard questions about what to do next, both for themselves and for him.

All this might explain why the Labour leader is proving so reluctant to table a vote of no confidence. It’s true that at present Labour would lose it – the Democratic Unionists look set to vote with the Government unless the deal passes – but unlike the Conservatives’ internal rules there’s nothing to stop the Opposition (or any other party) tabling another one, and then another. James Callaghan’s administration fought of several before famously succumbing in 1979.

But if a vote of no confidence failed then Labour’s current line, that they want a general election first and foremost, would be weakened. “You can’t secure an election”, their activists could rightly point out, “so what now?”.

Why the EU should fear a second UK referendum

Europe has enough on its plate with Hungary, Poland and Italy.

Bad news for Theresa May is good news for the chances of a second Brexit vote.

With the British prime minster struggling to get her Brexit deal through parliament, more and more Europeans are hoping the U.K. will hold a second referendum and vote not to leave at all.

They should be careful what they wish for.

Since the 2016 Brexit vote, a number of European leaders have called the U.K.’s choice a “tragedy” and stressed that the British are always welcome back. The U.K. paid for a big part of the EU budget, and many saw it as a counterweight to Germany and France.

The U.K. should be welcomed back — but later, not now.

A vote to remain would leave millions of bitter Brexiteers feeling betrayed.

For anyone rooting for a stronger EU, there should be nothing more terrifying than the U.K. overturning its Brexit decision and simply staying in.

If the result of the second referendum goes against the first, millions of bitter Brexiteers will feel betrayed by an elite who promised them their initial vote would settle the Europe question for good.

Given the passions a second referendum would unleash — reigniting deep divisions between poorer and richer parts of the country — the U.K. would resume its EU membership as a nation — or, rather, a collective of nations — recovering from a profound sense of disruption, even trauma.

The last thing any British leader would do in a house so divided is contemplate any deeper entanglement with Europe. The U.K. would slow down or block essential EU reforms, seek to extract special favors, and ruthlessly use any available alliance within the bloc to protect a narrowly defined national interest.

Theresa May makes a statement outside Downing Street after winning the confidence vote brought against her by Tory MPs on 12 December | Leon Neal/Getty Images

And, of course, the U.K. would always be teetering on the brink of a new Brexit process. Brexit believers would not give up.

The intensity of their anger would be more than the consequence of being deprived of victory after being told there would be no further battle.

Three key European treaties — Maastricht, Nice and Lisbon — were rejected by Danish and Irish voters before being ratified, after crucial changes, in a second referendum. Ever since, U.K. voters have been fed the idea that a second vote amounts to a violation of democracy.

This antipathy to a second referendum fits into an English propensity to see politics not as a negotiation, but as a sport. To many, being asked to vote again feels as if the loser of the Wimbledon final would demand a rematch.

Only recently — and because it suited Remainers and many in Westminster — has a second referendum been no longer dismissed as a project that perverts the course of democracy.

Europe would welcome a change of heart by the U.K.

To be sure, the chances of a second referendum are still not exactly high. Theresa May still says she does not want one, and the obstacles are many. But there is a mounting groundswell to give people a say. And poll after poll suggests that if it comes to a new vote, Remain would be likely to win. If this happens, any U.K. government would immediately inform its partners that it’ll stay in the bloc.

The official reaction in Europe would be to welcome the Brits’ change of heart. No government and few citizens wanted the U.K. to leave in the first place.

They might even see, as an added benefit, the temporary muting of Euroskeptic forces agitating to “take back control” from Brussels. But the upsides won’t last long.

Looking for levers to stop closer EU-wide cooperation has shaped British policy for the best part of 30 years. Until 2016, this was an element of its strategic calculus, or an act of self-preservation for the ruling party of the day. But after the trauma of two bitterly fought referendums, shaped by visceral distrust of Europe, it would become an existential national priority.

Past performance of both Labour and Tory governments suggests that London would look for allies not just in Copenhagen or The Hague, but would seek them in Warsaw, Rome and Budapest as well.

Old EU hands will remember how former Labour prime minister Tony Blair traveled to Sardinia to cozy up to Silvio Berlusconi recovering from his latest hair transplant. Recently, the Tories have sought to shield Hungary’s authoritarian leader Viktor Orbán from EU measures challenging his ability to govern as he pleases.

The EU are facing rising populist anger, including in France where the Yellow Jackets have protested rises in fuel tax | Abdulmonam Eassa/AFP via Getty Images

For Europe, this couldn’t come at a worse time.

The surge of anti-establishment anger across the continent — largely a consequence of the financial meltdown a decade ago — confronts liberal democracies with a potentially existential threat. The violent Yellow Jackets protests in France show the storms of the past few years are far from over.

If the EU wants to ensure its survival, it will have to make far-reaching changes to the way it responds to migration, fights climate change and poverty, manages its security and common currency. For this, it must become easier to govern, easier to understand and more democratic.

The last thing the EU needs, faced with these huge tasks, is a traumatized U.K. using its power and diplomatic savoir-faire to freeze the EU in its present state. Its painful deadlock over Brexit may be diminishing the U.K.’s standing in Europe, but its diplomatic machine remains a formidable one. The U.K.’s soft power is probably unmatched for a mid-size country.

For the EU, tackling nationalism in Warsaw, populism in Italy, authoritarianism in Hungary is difficult enough. A U.K. working across the continent to fend off anything threatening its own brittle national cohesion could present the European Union with one of its most insidious challenges yet.

Thomas Klau is senior Europe analyst with Eurointelligence.


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Jonathan Clark: Brexit has reopened two constitutional conflicts which must be resolved

Does authority reside with Parliament or the People? And are MPs representatives or delegates? Both must be answered.

Jonathan Clark was a Fellow of Peterhouse; at Oxford, he was a Fellow of All Souls College; latterly he has been Visiting Professor at the Committee on Social Thought at Chicago, and Hall Distinguished Professor of British History at the University of Kansas. His latest book is a study of Thomas Paine.

The British have, typically, little interest in constitutional law. Unlike the French, who regularly rewrite their constitution in revolutions or attempts to prevent revolutions, the British tend to assume that little changes and that all is well. Alas, the constitutional problems accumulate nevertheless. Dominic Grieve was right in a recent Commons debate to say that there are areas of the British constitution that need clearer definition. But what exactly are they? Why is the Brexit question so difficult to resolve through the familiar Westminster machinery?

The big issues of constitutional conflict are so fraught because they happen in legal grey areas, in which agreement and definition have never emerged. Today there are two such major areas, though many minor ones.

The first is the question of sovereignty: where does ultimate authority reside? It is many centuries since any significant number of people claimed that it resided with the person of the monarch alone. But the decline of that image was followed by the growing popularity of another, ‘the Crown in Parliament’, that is, the monarch, the Lords and the Commons acting together. This image never went away, but was upstaged by the doctrine of the lawyer A. V. Dicey (1835-1922) that ‘Parliament’ (meaning, increasingly, the House of Commons) was sovereign. Yet from the Reform Bill of 1832 into the 20th century, successive rounds of franchise extension strengthened another old idea, that the ultimate authority lay with ‘the People’, however defined.

From 1973, when the UK joined the EEC, it slowly became evident that the answer was ‘none of the above’: ultimate authority lay with Brussels. Parliament rubber-stamped increasing amounts of secondary legislation from an evolving super-state. In 2019, departure from the EU would remove that layer of command. This prospect inevitably reopens an old debate, which had never really been settled: was Parliament or the People finally supreme? Its re-emergence reminds us that Dicey’s doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty was the opinion of one commentator only. That opinion partly corresponded to contemporary practice, partly not.

Today, the tide is everywhere running in the opposite direction. Deference and duty daily fade; the key word everywhere is ‘choice’, and this means the choices of the many, not just the few. The transformation of communications places steadily more power in the hands of a steadily more educated, better informed ‘People’. But this trend has been matched by another, seen across the West in recent decades and at all levels: in increasingly complex societies, the executive has everywhere grown more powerful vis-a-vis the legislature. Political scientists have largely ignored this tide, but it has swept forwards nevertheless. It means that two powerful social forces now collide. Across western democracies, ‘ordinary people’ find means of complaining that they are ignored by elites who ‘just don’t get it’; elites decry ‘populism’ and exalt the opinion of ‘experts’, expressed to within one decimal point in forecasts of outcomes 15 years hence.

This collision reopens a second, equally old, question. What is a Member of Parliament: a delegate, or a representative? Edmund Burke famously outlined the case for the second: MPs, once elected, represent the nation as a whole; they owe the nation their best judgment; they are in nobody’s pocket. But another idea is just as old, and equally honourable: MPs are sent to Westminster by their electors to redress the electors’ grievances, and are accountable to them. Against Burke, we can set another intellectual, Andrew Marvell, MP for Hull in 1659-78, who was paid by his constituents and regularly reported back to them. Understandably, Burke’s high-sounding doctrine proved the more popular among MPs. But after he framed it, his constituents in Bristol threw him out for favouring Irish commercial interests over theirs, and he represented thereafter only his patron’s pocket borough.

Both ideas in their pure form are unacceptable. But how the balance between the two is to be struck can never be quantified or defined, and a crisis like the present makes the impossibility of a definition clear. ‘The People’ voted by 52 to 48 for Leave, and a larger percentage now says ‘just get on with it’; but about five-sixths of the House of Commons are for Remain.

Among Conservative MPs, something under 100 are evidently for Leave; of the other 200 or so, about half are on the Government payroll in one capacity or another, and more would like to be. So profound a dissociation between elite and popular opinion is rare. Worse still, public opinion polls and the growing practice of referenda quantify the problem as never before; the issue is easily expressed in binary terms (Leave or Remain); and the arguments have been fully rehearsed. Other countries show similar problems of relations between the many and the few, but in the UK these are brought to a focus. Since the constitution has failed to resolve them, public debate is full of expressions of elite contempt for the ignorant, prejudiced, xenophobic, racialist populace on the one hand; of popular contempt for the self-serving, condescending, out-of-touch Establishment on the other.

Before 1914, Conservative peers making technical points over a budget were manoeuvred by Lloyd George into a constitutional confrontation that could be memorably summed up as ‘Peers versus the People’. In this clash, the peers could only lose. Now, the Remainers have been manoeuvred into a constitutional confrontation that, if it goes much further, will be labelled ‘Parliament versus the People’. In such a conflict it can only be Parliament that will lose. In that event, the damage would be considerable.

These great questions of constitutional definition are seldom solved; rather, the issues are defused by building next to them a new practice. The present challenge is to accommodate that new arrival in the political arena, the referendum, and to turn it into a clearly specified, moderate, and constructive institution, as it is in Switzerland. Those concerned about daily policy should think again about a subject, once salient in university History departments but now everywhere disparaged: constitutional history.

UK can withdraw Brexit notification, ECJ rules

The result will provide a boost to campaigners for a second vote on EU membership.

The European Court of Justice ruled Monday that the U.K. can unilaterally withdraw its notification to leave the European Union without the permission of other EU countries.

The ruling in the case — which was brought by a group of Scottish politicians — will provide a boost to campaigners for a second referendum in the U.K. who want to put a stop to Brexit. If Britain can decide to withdraw its Article 50 notification, they argue, that would be one way to provide the time needed to hold a referendum on the divorce deal agreed between Theresa May’s government and Brussels.

Joanna Cherry, a Scottish National Party MP and one of the petitioners in the case, tweeted that it was “a huge victory for Scottish parliamentarians and Scottish courts.”

Jo Maugham, director of the Good Law Project who brought the case, which was funded by public donations, described the legal victory as “arguably the most important case in modern domestic legal history.”

“The 2016 referendum — during which both Leave and the regulator broke the law — would shame a banana republic,” he said, “But all the courts can do is open the door to Remaining. It is up to MPs to … find the moral courage to put the country’s interests before private ambition.”

MPs will vote on whether to ratify that deal Tuesday evening, but May’s government is widely expected to lose the vote — potentially by a wide margin.

EU diplomats have expressed concern about how the Article 50 ruling might be used in future by other countries. Ahead of the judgement they said they feared that submitting and then withdrawing an Article 50 notification might be used as a negotiating tactic to extract concessions from other EU members on opt outs from EU programs or rebates from the budget.

One diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said allowed unilateral withdrawal would be “madness,” saying it “could made it easier for a member state to play with [article 50], for example to get opt outs [from EU programs].”

Mohammed Amin: If there is a second referendum, no deal must be kept off the ballot paper

It would be even more irresponsible than David Cameron putting an undefined “Leave the EU” option on the 2016 ballot paper.

Mohammed Amin MBE is Chairman of the Conservative Muslim Forum. He is writing in a personal capacity.

After long negotiation, Theresa May has agreed with the EU-27 a deal comprising a legally binding departure treaty setting out the terms for the UK leaving the EU plus a non-binding political declaration regarding the future relationship between the UK and the EU.

As well as covering the strictly required terms of departure, the draft departure treaty also contains forward-looking sections covering the Northern Ireland backstop to ensure there is no hard border in Ireland and a UK wide backstop with customs arrangements to avoid an internal goods border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK if the Northern Ireland backstop ever needs to be applied.

The government’s negotiated deal is widely unpopular, and many Brexiteers are hankering for a “No deal Brexit.” The tide seems to be turning inexorably towards Parliament seeking a referendum to ask the people what should happen next.

Which referendums merit respect?

My 2017 Conservative Home article “Why referendums are almost always a bad idea” explained the difference between two kinds of referendums:

  1. Referendums where one of the choices is “A pig in a poke”
  2. Referendums offering a choice between the status quo and a completely specified alternative

The 2011 Alternative Vote referendum was an example of a category (2) referendum. Unfortunately, the 2016 European Union membership referendum was a category (1) referendum.

17 million Leave voters were each able to vote for their personal vision of an idealised Brexit, unconstrained by the reality of what type of Brexit could actually be achieved if Leave won.

This difference between the two types of referendum is at the heart of my reasons for respecting the 2011 referendum, but not respecting the 2016 referendum.

What does a “No deal Brexit” look like?

No deal means no deal. There would be no separation agreement with the EU-27. How does one then divide up EU assets and liabilities including pension liabilities? The inevitable result would be international lawsuits, just like domestic divorces end up in court when the parting couple cannot agree a deal.

In such circumstances, the EU-27 would want to “nail the UK to the floor.” That is what I would do if I were representing the EU-27 and if the UK had walked away from its treaty obligations without a separation agreement.

I looked at this kind of world in my 2016 Conservative Home piece “Ultra-hard Brexit – a mathematical perspective.” At its most brutal, no planes would fly between the UK and the EU-27, and no goods would move by sea. This would be very harmful to the EU-27; the disappearance of all of their exports to the UK could reduce their GDP by around three per cent. However, for the UK the consequences would be catastrophic with an overnight reduction in GDP of around 10 per cent. When divorcing couples start throwing plates at each other, they have ceased to care how much damage they do to themselves; what matters is the damage they do to the other.

When ardent Brexiteers talk about a “No deal Brexit”, they do not mean the above.

Instead, they visualise a fantasy of the UK leaving the EU without the Government’s negotiated departure deal, paying nothing to the EU, but the EU-27 falling over themselves to give the UK everything that they declined to give May in her two years of negotiations.

At its heart, they have an extreme illusion about the relative negotiating power of the UK and the EU-27. For some of them, it is not even the 1950s but rather the 1850s when Britain really was the world’s dominant superpower; and could resolve minor problems overseas by “sending a gunboat.”

The second referendum question

I do not really want a second referendum. As I said earlier this year in “Brexit and the duty of every Parliamentarian”, if MPs consider that instructing the Government to remain within the EU by withdrawing the UK’s Article 50 notice is preferable to approving the Government’s departure deal, then it is their duty to do precisely that.

However, if Parliament is unwilling to carry out the above duty, and decides instead to hold a second referendum, then it must be a category (2) referendum.

The two defined choices should be:

  1. Leave the EU on the basis of the Government’s negotiated draft departure treaty plus political declaration.
  2. Remain in the EU.

Putting an undefined “No deal Brexit” on the ballot paper would be even more irresponsible than David Cameron putting an undefined “Leave the EU” option on the 2016 ballot paper. It would risk voters visualising their own personal fantasy “No deal Brexit” and then voting for that, leaving the Government to sort out a 2019 act of self-harm even greater than the 2016 act of self-harm which is what David Cameron’s referendum result constituted. Nothing should go onto a second referendum ballot paper unless it has been negotiated with the EU-27 and written down as implementable text, as Theresa May’s withdrawal deal has been.

Nick Hargrave: The Conservative split is coming. Indeed, it is already here. Unless…

Perhaps, against all the odds, we will find a way of muddling through and preserve our broad church for a time after the era of Brexit has passed.

Nick Hargrave is a former Downing Street special adviser, where he worked under both David Cameron and Theresa May. He now works at Portland, the communications consultancy.

My career in backroom politics began in an institution called the Conservative Research Department. Depending on how charitable your view of professional politics is, CRD can either be viewed as the meritocratic engine room of the Tory machine that in the past century has produced more Cabinet ministers than any public school or Oxbridge college; or it can be seen as an elitist playground of Westminster bubblery that shows how remote the mindset of SW1 is from people in the country at large.

Fortunately, that is not up for debate in this column. The reason I mention it is because its interview process is reflective of the tension that sits at the heart of the Conservative Party. The way in which its leading participants react to this tension will determine whether it continues to exist in its current form.

The first question every CRD interviewee is asked upon sitting down is the immortal line: ‘why are you a Conservative’?’ As someone who interviewed more potential staffers over the years than I care to remember, it is a question with the capacity to flummox even the most articulate applicant and has done so throughout the ages.

It’s a brilliant interview question because there is no perfect answer. There are some unacceptable answers that will meet with a stony reception such as that enterprise should not exist or that the concept of a British nation is entirely without merit. But other than that, the tent is broad and the floor is yours. Acceptable answers include but are not limited to: a belief in personal freedom and liberty; a general love for the nation, its institutions and traditions; backing business and free enterprise; low taxes; wanting government to get out of the way; thinking government should focus its energy on programmes that give people the opportunity to make the most of their talents; aspiration; social mobility; the family; a hand up but not a hand out; supporting our armed forces; localism and community; a deep scepticism to the bureaucracy of the European Union and many more things besides.

The truth is this: conservatism is really a disposition rather than an ideology. It is a complicated web of values rooted in the free market and nation state that have fused together as a product of our national history, British level-headedness, a sense that getting things done in Government beats the pompous purity of Opposition – reinforced and helped along by the electoral system of first past the post. If the delicate web of values can be condensed into a simple sentence it is only this: a belief that change is inevitable and often beneficial but it must be managed organically and in accordance with the traditions of the country.

That at least would have been the historic definition. But the United Kingdom’s place with the European Union has gnawed away at this sense of unity for as long as I have been alive. It is the perfect juxtaposition of the competing values of national identity and economic security. And it’s been given new life by a worldwide reassessment of capitalism and nationalism in the displacing effects of a global market, a new era of digital discourse where the old give and take seems irrelevant – and David Cameron’s decision to get out of a political bind in 2013 by bringing this question to a head in a referendum. All despite the fact that our country is constitutionally ill-equipped to deal with direct democracy.

But we are where we are, the genie is out of the bottle and there is no point pretending that a second referendum will make this go away. The people are boss; they voted for Britain to leave the European Union and it must be implemented. We should also accept that, despite the best will in the world and no matter what clever solution is arrived at in the next few months, the debate about Brexit isn’t going to go away anytime soon.

There is no magical answer – whether compromise or extreme – that will suddenly make the country think this is dispatched and done. The only thing that could conceivably change the national conversation any time soon is a new arc of politics around a global recession, a global security incident or something else out of left-field and probably deeply unpleasant; and as corrosive and boring as Brexit is to our political culture, I would take it any day over those options.

Once you accept this premise, the path ahead for the Conservative Party becomes a little clearer. There are only three ways to go on the road ahead.

We can have a ‘soft split’, more likely if the Deal does somehow gets passed. We morph after March into an explicitly protectionist and nationalist party as a form of catharsis to what the then previous Prime Minister, Theresa May, agreed. This will be a popular position in some parts of Britain and it is where the bulk of our membership is. But it has little future in our capital city, other metropolitan areas and – in my view at least – it will provide diminishing returns over time with the voters of tomorrow. This scenario inevitably sees us becoming the ‘We Shouldn’t Have Signed the Deal’ party. There are many branching histories to this, but I think most of them end up with a Labour Government by 2022.

We can have a ‘hard split’ where the Conservative Party becomes separate political entities over Brexit-defined lines; the parliamentary flux over the next few weeks makes this a possible outcome. Dispassionately, if the alternative is chaos, there might merit to this proposal if the moderate Conservative faction were to find common cause with the moderate Labour one to deliver an orderly Brexit . But, again, the only way it doesn’t lead to a hard-left Jeremy Corbyn Government is if tribal loyalties were to be left behind on both sides. I am yet to be convinced.

Or, against all the odds, we find a way of muddling through and preserve our broad church for a time after the historical era of Brexit has passed (with an inevitable peeling off of some MPs on the extremes). To do this, the party can only do one thing. It has to come to its senses and decide an imperfect compromise – whether the PM’s current deal or the Norway option as a backup – is the best long-term bet for our political family and national unity. You would need a leader of exceptional political skill to make this argument given where we have got to now. Any takers?

Michael McManus: We can’t let political theatre remain a liberal echo-chamber

Plays can be a useful pressure valve, and help expose their audiences to other points of view.

Over a decade ago, the departing Director of the National Theatre, Sir Nicholas Hytner, acknowledged how homogenous political theatre was in danger of becoming, expressing his hope that someone might write “a good, mischievous, right-wing play”.

Our premier political playwright, James Graham, chooses to keep his personal politics to himself, but there is no mistaking the respect and affection with which he treats traditional Labour in his superb play “This House”. Certainly, he, in common with the likes of David Hare or David Edgar, has never written anything that might be dubbed a “right-wing” play.

I don’t mean – and I am certain Hytner also didn’t – a wearisome alt-right polemic, merely a different vantage point from the increasingly well-worn, indeed near-ubiquitous, theatre pieces that “expose the manifest injustices and inhumanity of [insert Tory policy here]”.

I am a one-time Conservative parliamentary candidate and my first play, “An Honourable Man”, is now in the final week of its three-week run at the White Bear Theatre in Kennington (at the time of writing, a handful of tickets remain). It’s not for me to say whether or not the play is “good”: a great many people seem to think it is (though others disagree – see below), but it is most certainly intended to be mischievous.

This first experience of play-writing has been quite some roller-coaster ride. It won’t surprise anyone to be told that the personnel of theatre tend to lean to the left just as much as the writing does, so I was well aware I would be sticking my head above the parapet by chancing my arm in their world.

All the old hands counsel, “don’t read the reviews” (at least until the run is over), but, believe me, you do read them. We have had some excellent ones and some encouraging ones, some indifferent ones and also some outright hostile ones. I have been extremely fortunate in my cast of six – all are excellent and the lead, Timothy Harker, has deservedly received a prestigious award nomination for his superb performance.

What has attracted opprobrium is nothing they have done, rather the political context and content of the piece – and my (sometimes cold, sometimes satirical) depiction of a political world I really do know all too well. In particular, I have been vigorously criticised for raising the spectre of people’s fears about immigration – precisely those fears (as a very significant piece of polling by Lord Ashcroft adumbrated five years ago) that underpinned the 2016 vote for Brexit.

The brutal fact is, in June 2016 the political status quo was rejected by 17 million voters and they had their reasons. I believe passionately that, if this country is to have any chance at all of moving forward from its current existential crisis, even in a pro-Remain, Labour stronghold such as Lambeth, no, especially in such a location, some brutal truths about modern life do need to be faced; and theatre is precisely the appropriate “safe space” in which to do so.

My play charts the rapid political rise of a hitherto unknown Labour politician (Joe Newman) who, ousted by Momentum, ploughs his own furrow and sets up a new political movement that strongly echoes the 2016 Leave campaign: he proclaims the pressing need for a strong reassertion of national pride and tough policies on immigration, combined with a generous programme of investment in public services.

He at once recognises the limits of potential Tory support in traditional Labour heartlands, and capitalises on Labour’s “towns problem” – its increasing lack of connection with traditional, white, working-class voters – to some degree at least mirroring the 2017 Tory manifesto, which alienated Hampstead but turned Mansfield and parts of Stoke and Middlesbrough blue. In effect, my response to all the talk of a realignment creating a new “Democrats-style” party here in the UK is to posit that, perhaps, we might find ourselves with a “Republican-style” party first, built on the still-fresh foundations of the unprecedented coalition that delivered the 17 million-strong Leave vote in 2016.

This scenario certainly qualifies as “mischievous”, but is it really “right wing”? Not necessarily, yet there have been audible gasps in the room when Newman’s actress friend Liz – our principal proxy for everyone on the contemporary liberal-left – says she is “appalled” by her friend’s incipient anti-immigration stance. “Appalled?” interrupts Newman’s influential staffer Anne. “Appalled that the descendants of the people who built this country, who fought and died for it… Appalled that they want it back?”

This may make people uncomfortable, but the fact is, it is how millions of people feel – and simply shutting out such sentiments, or lazily denouncing them from the comfort of a well-paid professional or public-sector job within the M25, does not make those sentiments vanish in a puff of rhetorical smoke. Au contraireWhether this sense of alienation and sheer grumpiness is uttered in a working men’s club in Easington or a golf club in Haslemere (and I am well aware people are likely to be more indulgent about the former), it has been in the ascendant in recent times.

As that same character, Anne, puts it in the play:

“Millions of people… have been on retreat all their lives… The pits have closed, the factories have gone, their High Streets are ghost towns… Since the last war, their way of life has been completely laid to waste – and once, just for once, they were able to come together and be on the winning side… in the referendum… and who can begrudge them that? For once they won – and they won’t let that go. Nor should they”. 

After decades of political campaigning, it has taken a major adjustment of mind-set for me to switch from practised advocacy of policies to a more detached representation of them. No single one of the six characters on my stage could ever claim speak for everyone, but each of them approximately represents a segment of the political spectrum, ranging from the orthodoxies of the modern liberal left to Old Labour, to Brexit and beyond.

If theatre has any value at all, it must challenge our views, not just reinforce them. It should change perceptions, not serve to ossify them. If it becomes merely a cosy, cosmopolitan echo chamber for virtue-signalling, it might as well be dead. So, please come and see our play, while you still can. If you agree with any of its messages, that’s wonderful. If you don’t – well, that’s just fine and dandy too. The play’s the thing!