Zack Blumberg: The Conservative Party’s grave mistake

Tuesday, July 2, 2019 - 11:49am

Back in January, I published my first ever column for The Daily, in which I derided Brexit as an unrealizable fantasy which could never be pulled off. Unfortunately, it seems I was only half right: Brexit remains an unrealizable fantasy, but Britain appears determined to go through with it anyway. Coinciding with the Conservative Party’s members-only vote for the country’s next prime minister, YouGov polled Conservative Party members about Brexit — the results were terrifying and confirmed that Conservative Party members are willing to sacrifice just about anything for Brexit (important note: Unlike in the United States, members of British parties are only a small cohort of paying, registered party members who vote on internal party decisions, not simply all people who vote for the party in national elections). However, the survey results don’t only demonstrate ineptitude, but a shortsightedness which could ultimately mean the end of the Conservative Party. 

Fundamentally, two specific questions in the YouGov survey explain the entire mindset of the Conservative Party regarding Brexit. First, Conservative Party members seem far more worried about the Brexit Party than the Labour Party. When asked which parties they thought posed a serious problem for the Conservatives, members listed the Brexit Party nearly twice as often as the Labour Party — 67 percent said the Brexit Party was a major threat, while only 34 percent said the Labour Party was. Second, Conservative Party members overwhelmingly believe that failing to deliver Brexit would damage the party going forward. An astonishingly large 51 percent of Conservative Party members said that if the U.K. remained in the EU, this would hurt the Conservative Party so much the party would never lead the government again. 

Though many of the survey results appear confusing, the two aforementioned questions provide some valuable context. Essentially, Conservative Party members believe they must push Brexit through or else their party will be ruined, and their voters, feeling betrayed, will migrate to the Brexit Party. With this in mind, some of the other poll answers make slightly more sense. In a 63-29 percent split, party members said they would be OK with Scotland leaving the U.K. if it meant Brexit happened, and in a 61-29 percent split, members said it was OK if the U.K. suffered significant economic damage from Brexit. Within the party, many members probably see those consequences as sacrifices they might have to make in order to avoid being usurped by the Brexit Party. 54 percent of party members even said they would support Brexit if it meant the Conservative Party was destroyed, likely because they believe the alternative is the party being destroyed after failing to deliver Brexit. 

In the short term, Conservative Party members’ paranoia over Brexit is actually somewhat justified. Since former Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May first initiated the U.K.’s withdrawal by invoking Article 50 of the European Union Treaty in 2017, the Conservative Party’s Brexit paralysis has cost the party greatly. Discord among Conservative MPs over how Brexit should be carried out led Parliament to reject May’s proposed exit deal three times, which ultimately forced her to resign earlier this month. Throughout this bureaucratic slog, Brexit voters have grown continually more exasperated. As a result of the Conservative Party’s inability to carry out Brexit, Nigel Farage’s newly founded Brexit Party which promised to get the U.K. out of the EU at any cost won a plurality in the 2019 European elections, while the Conservatives finished fifth. With the defeat fresh in their minds, it is understandable that Conservative Party members see delivering Brexit as the Party’s only way forward. 

With that said, there are several key problems which could decimate the Conservative Party. In some ways, it may already be too late. Though the party now firmly supports Brexit, several years of dithering have hurt the party’s credibility among Brexiteers. The Conservative Party’s likely pick for prime minister, Boris Johnson, said recently the U.K. would leave the EU on Oct. 31 (the current deadline for Brexit), regardless of the consequences. This is the strong stance frustrated Brexit voters want. However, like the rest of his party, Johnson has been quite inconsistent on this issue. In the lead up to the actual Brexit vote back in 2016, he was unusually quiet, and although he eventually supported Brexit, he said the decision was “agonizingly difficult” — hardly the outspoken response one would expect from him. 

Unlike Johnson, Farage has been an outspoken critic of the EU for decades: After the U.K. signed a treaty which furthered European integration in 1992, he left the Conservative Party to form the U.K. Independence Party; he then founded the Brexit Party in January. Since founding UKIP, Farage has been the face of the Eurosceptic movement. For the Conservative Party, this poses a fundamental problem: If people are really as concerned about Brexit as party members believe, why would they pick the slow-moving, flip-flopping Boris Johnson over the ever-consistent Nigel Farage?  

Furthermore, the Conservative Party’s biggest problem is how their approach sets the party up for the future. With the Brexit Party pushing the Conservatives to the right, the party now feels it must deliver Brexit at all costs to maintain power. However, this approach, combined with Britain’s changing demographics, could destroy the party. Although the U.K. did narrowly vote to leave the EU, three key groups voted overwhelmingly to remain: urban voters, young voters and university-educated voters. The results were particularly one-sided among voters under the age of 25 (71 percent voted remain) and voters with a university degree (68 percent voted remain). For the Conservative Party, this will be disastrous going forward. As older voters die off, Britain’s younger generation, which is consistently more progressive, will make up a larger and larger share of the electorate. Additionally, the British population is continually becoming more educated and more urbanized, which further threatens the Conservative Party. 

A decade from now, with all signs pointing towards the British populace being more pro-EU than today, the Conservative Party would be remembered as the party that decided to leave the EU, at the expense of the UK’s unity and economic prosperity. 

Ultimately, the Conservative Party is stuck in a corner right now. If the party is too weak on Brexit, it will face attacks from the Brexit Party. However, succumbing to the Brexit Party’s pressures, as the vast majority of party members seem prepared to do, would be a terrible mistake. Though it would likely retain slightly more power in the short term, the long-term consequences of a poorly planned Brexit would be catastrophic for both the party itself and the U.K. as a whole. Unfortunately, it appears the Conservative Party has taken this shortsighted approach and decided to hedge the party’s future, along with the economic health of the entire U.K., for small gains in the present. 

Zack Blumberg can be reached at zblumber@umich.edu.