Despite – or perhaps because of – the fact that I’ve spent most of my adult life writing and talking about politics and politicians, there are still things about politics that I just cannot, on a fundamental level, understand. Top of the list is tribalism, the “my party right or wrong” stuff that reduces public policy to the level of football chants. (Yes, football is another thing I don’t get. Surprising, I know.)
Apart from anything else, taking the view that the people and ideas of the other side are automatically bad is surely utterly self-defeating? Politics is about persuading the greatest number of people to agree and support you, whether at elections or during day-to-day governing. It’s a game of two halves and at the end of the day, you win by getting more people to agree with you than agree with the other side.
Continuing that logic, persuading the other side’s supporters to come over to your side is doubly valuable: you gain one supporter, your opponent loses one. That is what made Tony Blair such a fearsome politician. David Cameron’s private recollection of facing Blair as Labour leader was one of daily terror at facing an opponent who was utterly dedicated to turning Conservative voters into Labour voters. I recall Cameron once admitting that he used to “wake up every morning thinking ‘what’s that bloody man going to do today to take away my voters?’”
One of the great sadnesses of recent politics is that in the age of stupidity, the sort of sensible – and self-interested – approach that pushes politicians towards the centre ground and to think about the views of people on the other side is currently regarded as discredited or worse. That’s obviously true of party politics these days (John McDonnell says he could never be friends with a Tory: what does that say to the 13.6 million people who voted Tory at the last election?) but also of Brexit. How many Leave campaigners have tried to win over former Remain backers to their cause? How much effort do the second referendum crowd spend trying to understand why 17.4 million grown adults defied the warnings of pretty much every political and economic authority to vote Leave?
As someone who likes cross-party working and who has been cautiously sympathetic to Theresa May’s handling of Brexit, I think this has been one of her biggest failings since last year’s election. The day after that election, I wrote here to suggest that the Conservative response to that election should be to compromise with Labour voters over issues including Brexit because that would not just be politically and democratically wise, it would also point to a non-suicidal form of Brexit based loosely on EFTA and Norway.
May did not much heed that sort of advice. Even though it has been clear that Labour is deeply split and that an awful lot of Labour people are open to sensible compromise on Brexit, May has been unwilling or unable to reach out to them.
In July, when May produced her (relatively sensible) Chequers deal, there was a plan for Gavin Barwell, the PM’s (very sensible) chief of staff to brief Labour MPs on it and its merits. That was cancelled because Tory MPs were reportedly furious that the PM would even consider trying to get Labour MPs to vote for her plans. (Because, apparently, it’s better to increase rather than decrease the number of people opposing you. Funny lot, politicians.)
At her conference speech in October, May did make a late foray into national unity politics, saying nice things about the honourable and decent people who serve in the Labour Party, and rightly lamenting the nasty abuse Labour MPs such as Diane Abbott endure. But a few nice lines in a conference speech are not the same as a real political outreach operation, and overall, May has not done enough to face down the ultrapartisans in her own party over Brexit and make common cause with the Labour pragmatists (who are more numerous than a lot of people think).
Still, to give her due, at least she’s still trying. Barwell is, at the time of writing, due to hold a briefing for Labour MPs on May’s Brexit deal tonight, accompanied by David Lidington, the Cabinet Office minister. And Brexiteer Tories are again furious, whispering threats and outrage to journalists.
Which is just more evidence of how far the Brexit madness has corrupted Tory thinking about politics. An angry group of Conservative Brexiteers, nominally members of the party of Burke and Peel, are more interested in ideological purity than political success or effective government.
Any sensible, self-interested group of politicians would see clearly that whatever its flaws, May’s Brexit deal is better than any of the alternatives, and seek to win passage for it through Parliament with the widest possible majority. If that could be done by winning over a chunk of the Parliamentary Labour Party, so much the better for Tory fortunes: get your plans passed and split the opposition into the bargain – what’s not to like?
Instead, the angry brigade are pushing for the rejection of a deal when there is no alternative deal available. They are attacking their own leader for trying to get the votes she needs to pass that deal and avert a No Deal exit that no less a figure than Michael Gove believes would be a disaster for Britain.
This is, frankly, mad, and another sign that a relatively small group of Tory Leavers has lost connection with political reality and simple common sense (not to mention the basic facts of international trade and the Brexit process). I hope May does win the Labour votes she needs to pass her Brexit deal next month, and not just because it would avert that No Deal disaster. Doing so would be a fine rebuff to the nasty partisans – in both the big parties – who would rather burnish their own precious ideologies than actually get things done.
Of course, I don’t fancy her chances of that happening, at least for next month’s vote. She has left things very late and the conditions for cross-party cooperation are hardly favourable. But in the longer term, I wonder if this isn’t where the future of Brexit lies.
There is today an alternative form of the May deal hoving into view, a softer form of Chequers that looks quite a lot like the sort of Norwegian option pushed by Nick Boles and others. There are, of course, problems with that plan, but at least it’s a real plan, which is more than can be said for the “let’s just ride a unicorn” stuff offered both the No Dealers and the No Brexiters.
So if May’s deal doesn’t pass in its current form, could it survive in Norwegian form? Perhaps, but that would require the Labour votes May is now seeking for her deal. And an EFTA-Brexit would be much easier for more Labour MPs to support than the current version of the deal. So May’s late outreach attempt might not be wholly in vain.
And that’s a thought the Tory angry brigade should ponder today. What if your choice is between May passing her current Brexit deal with a few Labour votes, or having it rejected, then passing a much softer deal with a lot of Labour votes?