With polls suggesting the Conservatives are on course to lose the next general election, is it the Tories, and not Labour, who are more likely to change tact on Brexit to woo younger voters and return to power if the party find itself in opposition?
This statement may sound absurd, and the possibility of it happening unlikely – especially after years of Conservative party infighting over Brexit.
But as more voters turn their backs on Brexit, and with hard-line Brexiteers either sidelined or set to lose their seats, it is entirely possible that the next generation of Tories could use the next decade or so to consider the unthinkable and change tact on Brexit to win back a disillusioned and tired British public, especially if the party loses the next general election.
The Conservatives under Boris Johnson, and then Liz Truss and now Rishi Sunak, made sure that most moderate “Europhile” MPs have either left Parliament or replaced in Cabinet with hard-line Brexiters and members of the European Research Group (ERG), including Jacob Rees-Mogg, Suella Braverman, Priti Patel and Steve Baker.
These ERG members have been calling the shots since Johnson’s barnstorming election win in 2019, and have been pushing the Government further toward the right and away from normal relations with Europe, no matter the cost.
But the huge elephant in the room is that cost is becoming too high, and with the UK economy struggling compared to its peers on the Continent post-pandemic and with the cost of living crisis particularly acute in Britain, the British public is increasingly wondering what, if any, Brexit benefits will appear to improve their fortunes.
The Brexit reality is becoming stark, and the public mood regarding closer ties to Europe, and even rejoining the EU, is shifting. Recent polls suggest almost two-thirds of Britons think it was wrong to leave the EU, while roughly the same amount want to rejoin.
Additionally, a recent ITV poll of 1,023 Britons aged between 18 and 25 revealed 85% want to rejoin the EU. The young are restless about Brexit, it seems.
But there has been a shift in the Conservative Party’s approach to Brexit since Sunak took over last year. Business secretary Kemi Badenoch, another Brexiter, is said to have watered down the Government’s pledge to scrap thousands of EU laws, while Sunak ripped up Johnson’s divisive plans for Northern Ireland and instead negotiated with the EU to create the Windsor Framework.
Conservative MPs are also starting to get cold feet over Brexit due to the British public’s realisation that it probably wasn’t a good idea and is making them poorer. Yesterday, Tory MP Tobias Ellwood said that the Government needs to “read the room” on Brexit as the next generation of voters is not keen on it.
Ellwood’s comments are not new, but it is becoming clear that more Conservative MPs, especially those on the backbenches, are looking at the public mood towards Brexit, and its effect on the UK economy, and thinking that maybe leaving the EU wasn’t such a great idea.
Labour’s position is also polarising voters. Despite the shift in public sentiment towards Brexit, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer and his frontbench have ruled out rejoining the EU, and are copying the Government’s new policy in looking to agree to better terms with Europe instead.
Simply put, more and more British voters have made up their minds on Brexit, and neither party is willing to alienate leave voters by admitting that rejoining the EU would probably solve a lot of the UK’s current economic and social problems.
This is where election strategy comes in. The Conservatives are set to lose the next general election, which will be held sometime before early 2025, and with a Starmer-led Labour Government already deciding that reversing Brexit is off the table, the Tories have an opening to, well, take back control.
Much like the Tory moderates and Europhiles being booted following the Conservative’s rout of Labour in 2019, polling shows that it is likely that many hard-line Brexiteers, including Patel, Johnson, Baker, Rees-Mogg and Braverman, will lose their seats at the next general election.
The main architects of Brexit would be gone, and a door would open to a new wave of Conservative moderates to takeover, albeit in opposition, to push Labour on its mindboggling position of ruling out a reversal of Brexit, which would create a huge dividing line on the matter to force voters’ hands.
As they get poorer, polls show the British public is crying out for leadership on Brexit and for someone in a senior position in Government to address the elephant in the room: That the UK was, probably better off in the EU. This is particularly so for the next generation of younger voters who didn’t get their say on leaving the EU in 2016, and who are acutely affected by the ailing economy and chaotic post-Brexit policymaking.
Although past and present members of the European Parliament have said Britain is always welcome to rejoin the EU, it is unclear what concessions the UK will have to make or even if it is possible.
What is clear is that if the Conservative party does manage to lose Brexiteer MPs and break free of the ERG stranglehold on the party in the event of an election loss, then those MPs left in Parliament have an opportunity to create a dividing line with a Starmer-led Labour Government and use rejoining the EU to return to power in the future.