Week-in-Review: Brexit Britain fumbles for direction

Not all of what was said at the National Conservatism Conference this week can or should be subjected to detailed textual analysis — I’m thinking of Conservative MP Miriam Cates’ case against “cultural Marxism” and Danny Kruger’s exaltation of the “normative family”. But the discussion billed as a cosy “fireside chat” with Michael Gove, that long-survivor of Conservative government, deserves some finer attention. 

Since 2010, Gove has couched in every corner of the totemic Conservative party big tent. From Cameron through Brexit, to Theresa May and now post-Boris, the levelling up secretary has been a near constant presence through multiple party rebrands. 

It was perhaps little surprise, therefore, that it was Gove charged with torch-bearing for “big C” Conservatism at “small c” Natcon. (On Wednesday, the PM’s spokesperson confirmed that the cabinet minister was attending the culture war jamboree in a government capacity). 

So here was Gove, the survivor, as “small c” activists empowered by American entryists angled at another rebrand. Of course, the self-professed “social liberal” was not quite at home — he warned his party not to prioritise culture wars at the expense of “economic issues”. After a decade of riding wave after wave of Conservative reinvention and overhaul, it seemed the cabinet mainstay was finally swimming against the tide. 

Compared to the speeches of fellow cabinet minister Suella Braverman and former Brexit negotiator Lord Frost, Gove’s address had relatively few applause lines. It was a fireside chat with few fireworks; for the expectant assembled NatCons, Gove’s moderate outlook meant a trial by relative mundanity.

On this, one episode was particularly revealing. When asked to list the Conservative party’s greatest triumphs in government, Gove cited Universal Credit, levelling up and education reform. It was hardly the rabble-rousing, crowd-pleasing catalogue the conference might have liked. 

And conspicuously absent from Gove’s list was Brexit — by far the most seismic political event of the last thirteen years, and a project he himself patronised.  

This was especially curious because Brexit might be viewed as the core unifying principle of British National Conservatism. Indeed, for the typical British “national conservative”, Brexit’s celebration of “the nation” and its co-equal commitment to a low-tax, low immigration future would surely form a central part of their worldview.

Naturally, this was the pitch trailed by former Brexit negotiator, Lord Frost, as he took to the NatCon pulpit on Wednesday. Addressing the assembled activists, he heralded the “spirit of the Brexit revolt”. Gove’s silence on the subject was therefore matched by Frost’s full-fledged celebration of the project.

It was an approach echoed by the home secretary. 

Braverman, far from shying away from the Brexit issue, told the conference that Britain’s departure from the EU could enable a high-skilled, high-wage economy to be built “that is less dependent on low-skilled foreign labour”. 

“We need to get overall immigration numbers down. And we mustn’t forget how to do things for ourselves”, she added.

As far as Frost and Braverman are concerned, the Brexit revolution has only just begun. To get Brexit truly “done” and address the UK’s economic malaise, they prescribe a Conservative government that will take back control of Britain’s national culture.

Frost and Braverman’s arguments, while placing different emphasises on the importance of fiscal policy and immigration, were, therefore, essentially variations on the same theme. That is: the great populist triumph of Brexit is right now an unfulfilled dream; still, it can, and must, create in Britain a low tax, lightly regulated and less migration-reliant state. 

But here’s the problem: three years on from Brexit, Britain is experiencing the highest tax burden since WW2, and immigration — despite the commitments of people like Michael Gove during the 2016 referendum — continues to rise. 

Figures out next week are expected to see immigration numbers soar to more than 700,000. This fact, compounded by the existence of small boats in the Channel and rising corporation tax, begs seriously existential questions of the Brexit project. No wonder Gove was so taciturn on Britain’s departure from the EU in his fireside conclave.

And, of course, Frost’s vision faces an even more tangible roadblock: Liz Truss. The former PM’s disastrous tenure burned through most of British libertarianism’s political capital. Like Frost, Truss was desperate to unchain Britannia after a decade of anaemic growth. Empowered by the rhetoric of “post-Brexit freedom”, the world watched in awe as Truss’ post-Brexit economic dream was strangled by market forces at its birth. 

The fact is: by arguing for Brexit in the future tense, Braverman and Frost unsubtly admit that it is yet to deliver. This fact, coupled with Gove’s polite reproofs of NatCon at NatCon, beg serious questions of the project’s present intellectual coherence.

Indeed, even Nigel Farage suggested this week that Brexit, on his terms, “has failed”.

The blunt verdict came as Rishi Sunak confirmed that he is in talks with the EU over reopening the Brexit trade deal struck between the UK and EU at the end of 2020. Frost’s handiwork, to which he owes his platform at the NatCon conference, is said to be stymying the development of Britain’s electric car battery industry. 

Brexit Britain at the crossroads

The NatCon conference was styled as a symbolic gathering of right-of-centre advocates, as conservatives globally get to grips with some difficult issues. “Should conservatives unleash the market or intervene in it?”, is one such problem; “Should a Conservative government prioritise economic growth even at the expense of community?”, is another. 

But the national context of British Conservatism meant there was a further, probably more vexing, question: how, post-Brexit and post-Truss, should the big “c” Conservatives update their political stall?

At the end of play, there did not appear to be many answers. Indeed, as speaker after speaker lambasted the status quo, critics were quick to point out that this appeared a faction preparing for opposition. Posturing and pandering, not the intellectual future of the conservative tradition, appeared the core themes of many of the speeches. 

Tellingly, Gove identified this problem in his own fireside broadside. He suggested that some in his party might have got bored of the “dispiriting task of government” and may actually fancy the indulgent decadence of opposition. 

The observation underlines that while conservatism may be at a crossroads intellectually; politically it seems inexorably bound for opposition.