The Conservatives’ Brexit Dividend

Extending the timescale for Brexit could work to the Conservatives’ electoral advantage suggests Steve Beauchampé.

The warning signs have been there for a couple of weeks. It started moments after the polls closed in this month’s local elections with a Daily Telegraph lead story, continued with hints from Business Secretary Greg Clark a week ago and has now essentially been confirmed by Prime Minister Theresa May at an EU meeting in Bulgaria last Thursday…the UK is likely to seek an extension to the previously agreed 21-month transition period covering the period from when the country formally leaves the EU on March 29th 2019 until it quits the Customs Union and Single Market.

This to allow time for the technical solutions that it is claimed/hoped will prevent the re-introduction of a physical border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland to be developed into something workable.

Whilst May promised EU leaders that she will shortly set out how the UK plans to remain aligned with the soon-to-be 27-nation block, thus complying with the ‘backstop’ agreement that she has already agreed to, media reports suggest that up to 12 months additional transition time will be required, moving a full exit back to as late as the end of 2021.

But as most things Brexit involve delays, evading deadlines, extensions and repeatedly pushing crucial decisions as far into the future as is politically acceptable, then 2022 or 2023 (this the date that the Daily Telegraph article suggested) seem entirely plausible.

So what of Boris Johnson’s assertion that the transition period (May once claimed that there would not even be such a thing) must last, “two years and not a second longer”? What of the insistence by other Leave supporting Cabinet members that the UK would be “an independent nation, in control of its laws, its borders, its money and its sovereignty” by the start of 2021? We are about to discover perhaps that they were empty promises, worthless red lines, easily crossed.

Because whilst the hardcore Brexiteers will argue and bicker, both in public and in Cabinet, they will, for the most part, have to accept the political realities and fall into line. Meanwhile, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Iain Duncan-Smith and their cohorts in the European Research Group will fizz and fume that Brexit is endlessly receding towards the horizon, and Leave voters will become even more vexed and frustrated, reduced on tv and radio political debate shows to using phrases such as: “Why don’t we just leave now?” in ever more fractious and agitated tones.

Perhaps even Nigel Farage might make a political comeback at some east of England by-election, giving the Government a bloody nose by mopping up disillusioned Leave voters. But none of this will change the fundamentals.

Whether Theresa May could survive the turbulence that would follow an extended delay to a full Brexit is hard to call. Yet for the Conservatives a longer transition period might turn out to be very beneficial electorally, whilst also allowing them to appear be acting responsibly concerning the Irish border impasse.

With the next General Election due no later than mid-2022, for the Government to head into it having only recently extracted Britain fully from the EU and finally delivered on their Brexit objectives to 17.4m euphoric voters – and before any significant economic downsides have started to take effect – could be a very good place to be. Better still to have not quite quit – a scenario where the Conservatives would be the only major political party promising to deliver “the will of the people” whilst their foes might stand accused of still trying in some ways to thwart it.

What the recent local elections confirmed is that Brexit is a vote winner for the Conservatives. While control of Britain’s large metropolitan areas are currently beyond them, they know that it is in those hundreds of mid-sized towns in the English Midlands, East and North – towns such as such as Dudley, Nuneaton, Wigan, Peterborough – that the promise of a pure, uncompromising Brexit pulls in the voters, and will continue to as long as such a scenario is getting tantalisingly closer.

Because those voters have no realistic alternative. By turning themselves into the only electable party pursuing this form of Brexit the Conservatives are able to sweep up Labour (and UKIP) voters for whom carrying through with Brexit has for now become more important than any traditional party loyalty, and the Tories are able to do so without losing support from the Remain voters amongst their traditional county and shire base.

In contrast Labour have no realistic hope of winning the voting affections of disaffected Conservatives and are competing for left-leaning Remain voters with a myriad of other parties such as the Liberal Democrats, Greens and the SNP and Plaid Cymru, each of whom are likely to enter the next General Election on some kind of pro-EU or pro-Customs Union ticket.

So although it might be more by accident than design, the painstakingly drawn-out Brexit that appears increasingly inevitable may yet turn what looks like a never-ending crisis for the Conservatives into an opportunity to secure five more years in power.