By Siân Jones
‘The Conservative Party is a broad church’. How many times have we heard that phrase uttered by Tory politicians in the past few weeks and months? Yet the increasingly acrimonious and polarised debate over Brexit has seen that definition stretched to breaking point. Prominent backbenchers have defected to the new Independent Group in Parliament. Nick Boles, one of David Cameron’s key lieutenants, has resigned from his party. Ministers Nigel Adams and Chris Heaton-Harris have quit the Government in protest at the Prime Minister’s handling of Brexit. Social media has been awash with photographs of torn-up Conservative membership cards and candidates refusing to stand in the forthcoming European elections.
Saying you are a ‘broad church’ is all very well, but when MPs hurl such unedifying insults as ‘up yours’ to those on their own side, and able Ministers such as the mild-mannered David Gauke are facing votes of no confidence from their own constituency associations, it is hard to see the Tories as a party united in pursuit of a common objective. The Party once viewed as a near-invincible election-winning machine is teetering on the verge of its biggest ever existential crisis. Labour, its own supporters divided over a second referendum and plagued with accusations of anti-semitism, is faring little better.
It is no wonder, then, that an opinion poll this week from the highly-regarded Wales Governance Centre and YouGov put combined support for the Labour and Conservative parties in Wales – a key election battleground for both parties – at its lowest point since the early 20th century. Meanwhile, the newcomer Change UK polled at 9% – more than the Lib Dems on 7% – whilst Nigel Farage’s new Brexit Party polled 4%.
So does Brexit herald the end of two-party politics in Britain? And what are the lessons for companies and leaders seeking to engage with Government in these turbulent times?
In truth, the two-party model has been under threat for some time. The huge Tory landslides of the 1980s, and the overwhelming Labour victories of 1997 and 2001, are a distant memory. 2010 saw Britain’s first coalition government since the war – and comprised of the most unlikely political bedfellows. David Cameron fought hard to achieve his election victory in 2015; the end product of his decade-long party modernisation project was a modest twelve-seat majority. The Lib Dems, who once held 58 seats in Parliament during Charles Kennedy’s heyday, are currently little more than a Parliamentary afterthought. Meanwhile, the SNP continue to cut a huge yellow swathe through Labour’s traditional Scottish heartlands. The latest Welsh opinion polling shows Plaid Cymru, under new leader Adam Price, set for a strong performance in the next set of Assembly elections, replacing the Conservatives as the official opposition and eroding Labour’s traditional support base in Wales.
Political parties have historically framed election campaigns in terms of ‘individual freedom versus state control’ (Conservatives). Or, put another way, ‘Investment in public services versus lower taxes’ (Labour). The question now will be whether the Brexit debate will lead to a permanent re-drawing of those traditional dividing lines. Should a poll be held this year – as seems more likely by the day – voters are more likely to view the choice as ‘inward looking versus outward looking’. Inclusivity versus exclusivity. Internationalism versus Little England. And, at the most extreme, bigotry versus tolerance. This is particularly true among younger voters, many of whom view EU membership as synonymous with inclusivity and openness. Organisations seeking to engage with Government need to factor this emerging narrative into their lobbying discussions.
This evolving political landscape presents a huge challenge for Conservatives, who rely heavily on a Brexit-supporting core vote but desperately need younger people’s support if they are to win future elections. Yet the Leave versus Remain debate has become so ill-tempered and absolutist – it is hard to believe now that in 2012 David Davis, of all people, was calling for a second referendum as part of the Brexit process – that it is hard to see how either of the main parties will capture a sufficiently broad base of support. And where is the all-important centre ground? Is it Remain, Leave, Soft Brexit, or all three?
Traditionally, a Government stands or falls on its stewardship of the economy. On that basis, the Conservatives should comfortably win any general election. Yet Brexit has all but eclipsed any positive economic news, as demonstrated by the thin smattering of coverage given to the Chancellor’s recent Spring Statement.
All the more reason why the Conservatives’ priority must be to stave off that early general election. But faced with the prospect of a delayed or cancelled Brexit, and yet another unelected Prime Minister taking the reins, a poll within the next year may become unavoidable. If an early election ushers in an era of compromise and coalitions, similar to our European neighbours, that could well be the greatest Brexit irony of all.
Businesses and organisations engaging in public affairs work need to plan now for a different political future. Engaging with traditional Tory and Labour narratives will no longer be enough. Identifying the power-brokers and deal-makers within these new political factions, and developing a strategy for early, tailored and effective engagement, will be crucial over the coming months.