The political dysfunction in Parliament seems to be rubbing off on much of our commentariat. Many have concluded that the whole political system is about to undergo an earthquake as seismic and landscape-changing as anything that mere plate tectonics can conjure up. The main political parties will no longer be Labour and Tory, defined by being working class or middle class, big state or little state, socialist or free enterprise. Instead, goes the new thinking, there will be two main parties defined by being anti-Brexit and pro-Brexit (which may or may not be Labour and Conservative).
Now it is easy to see why people might start to claim this. There is plenty of cause for concern right now. But it shows a fundamental misunderstanding of voter motivation. Such a seismic shift is just not going to happen – at least not in the long term.
Let’s consider the evidence for the prosecution. Voters feel far more strongly about Brexit than they do about party politics. More people define themselves as pro- or anti-Brexit than as supporters of a political party. Passions are running high, tempers are flaring and local associations are fracturing. Both two main parties are profoundly split on the issue, and are now working together. MPs are splintering off. We have two new parties – Change UK and Nigel Farage’s Brexit party – which explicitly define themselves as being for Remain or for Leave, and an increasing number of lonesome independents. The unwanted but looming European elections will be defined around Brexit.
But this is all happening during the greatest political turmoil that most of us have ever experienced. The main reason that Brexit will not lead to a permanent change in the landscape is that Brexit is a painful one-off event, not a timeless philosophy. The waves will quickly smooth over. Yes, Brexit is supported by a wide range of voters, from establishment aristocrats to northern workers, from free-marketeers to socialists, fuelled by very differing concerns. But once Brexit has happened – assuming it does – there will be nothing left to unite them. Are Jacob Rees-Mogg and Jeremy Corbyn really going to end up in the same Brexit party?
So if Brexit occurs, it will quickly die down as a live political issue, overwhelmed by the one true national consensus of “let’s just move on”. Ukip – and indeed the whole Leave campaign – was pretty much killed off by their victory in the 2016 referendum, since they no longer had an electoral purpose. And so Change UK and the Brexit party will both be killed off by Brexit actually happening. After the national trauma of delivering the referendum result, the number of British voters wanting to hold another referendum to take the UK back into the EU after we have just left would barely fill a small Paris bistro. Can you imagine the volcanic eruption on doorsteps when Heidi Allen, the interim leader of Change UK, appears after Brexit has happened and says to a voter: “You know that three-year political mayhem, which explosively divided the country, split families and friends, lead to widespread public anxiety and frustration and total national humiliation, causing unprecedented uncertainty that led to real economic damage? Well, let’s not move on – but rather let’s go through it all again!” Her party will drop dead at the starting line. If there is a general election after Brexit, it will be fought over our national post-Brexit future rather than Brexit itself, just as the 2017 election largely was (almost all MPs were elected on a manifesto promise to deliver Brexit).
Brexit then will be a generational fight followed by a new political status quo. The comparison keeps being made with Sir Robert Peel repealing the Corn Laws relying on Whig support to overcome opposition among Tories MPs, and splitting the Tories for a generation. But scrapping the Corn Laws directly destroyed the wealth of much of the powerful landowning class, who had a massive ongoing incentive to regain their unearned riches by bringing back the Corn Laws. There is no equivalent vested interest in overturning Brexit after it happens. Just as “we are all Brexiteers now” was the mantra after the 2016 referendum, so it will be after Brexit itself.
But of course, it is a long and unpredictable road to Brexit – and it may not happen at all. And Brexit not happening is more likely to cause the political landscape to shift, as the tug of war between the two tribes continues. The May European elections (assuming they take place) will act as a pseudo-referendum on Brexit, whose results could be distorted in a Remain direction by many Brexiteers boycotting them. After all, many will not want to vote in elections they wanted to scrap. Change UK and the Brexit Party may do well as voters use the consequence-free protest vote against the established parties. They will be probably the strangest elections ever held in the UK.
A snap general election held before Brexit will also risk being a one-issue election: a fight over Brexit itself. It will be difficult to hold the divided parties together. What would the established party manifestos say? Change UK and the Brexit party would have a strong political raison d’etre – the first promising to stop Brexit, and the second promising to deliver it.
But pro-Brexit forces are likely to win, for three reasons. If the Conservatives have a new leader at the next general election, he or she is overwhelmingly likely to be pro-Brexit for the simple reason that the overwhelming majority of Conservative party members are pro-Brexit. The first ever Brexiteer prime minister will then use the election campaign and machinery of government to fight for Brexit. Labour is unlikely to change leader, and Corbyn will probably be as anaemic on the issue as he was in 2017.
I think the biggest vote in the country will be for “let’s move on”. Although the 2016 referendum result was close nationally, two thirds of constituencies voted for Brexit – it would need a huge national swing against Brexit to change that.
If pro-Brexit forces led by a pro-Brexit prime minister win the general election then it is a safe bet to say Brexit will be delivered. If anti-Brexit forces win, they will probably hold a second referendum, which may then reverse the decision of the first referendum. Although some Brexiteers will insist on the best of three, there will be limited appetite for yet another referendum on the same issue – and why would the Remainers then in charge offer it? There will be a sort of peace settlement from exhaustion. And the old politics of Labour and Tory, of socialism and free enterprise – the everlasting differences of philosophy – will rebound.
At some point, the existential question of Brexit – in the EU or out – will become politically settled for the next generation, and that will happen quicker if we leave than if we don’t. But whenever that happens, and whatever happens in the elections in the meantime, the political landscape will revert to its post mass-enfranchisement norm, of red and blue.
Anthony Browne is a former Europe editor of the Times