Brexit is now biting the Conservative Party back
Boris Johnson's party is running away from its own record on Brexit.
“The war has been won on Brexit, but the peace hasn’t been,” one Conservative delegate complained at a fringe meeting of the party’s annual conference in Manchester on Monday.
Sitting on stage and nodding in agreement was former Brexit minister and self-styled Hardman of Brexit Steve Baker, who detailed how he had been personally hurt by the party’s Brexit wars.
“Knocking on doors in Wycombe [his constituency] in 2019 was extremely painful,” he told the meeting hosted by the hard-right Institute of Economic Affairs.
“Some of my best streets, I mean absolutely solid [Conservative] streets, big two million pound houses, with long driveways Porsches, BMWs, shut the door in my face,” he told the room, adding that “it was really painful.”
“I lost more than 2,000 Conservative Remainers. Actually it hurts that I lost them.”
In search for a solution, he went on: “We’ve got a lot of hurt out there and I honestly don’t know the answer and if anybody has got the answer to how we heal these wounds as fast as possible then I’m absolutely up for hearing those ideas.”
Baker is not alone in wanting to move on from the party’s record on Brexit. As petrol stations run dry, supermarket shelves go empty and pigs are incinerated by the thousand in British farms, the party has started to struggle to deal with the issue.
From the prime minister down, the Conservative party increasingly appears in a state of denial about how Brexit will impact on their electoral prospects.
When industry first started to warn earlier this year that Brexit was causing labour and supply shortages in the economy, ministers reportedly dismissed their concerns as “crying wolf.”
Later when the petrol pumps started to run dry, Johnson and his spokespeople simply denied that there was a real issue, blaming instead the Road Haulage Association and parts of the press for manufacturing a crisis.
Now that line has refused to hold Johnson has instead resorted to a new tactic of claiming that the shortages are inevitable and all part of a bigger strategy to move the country away from a low-wage economy.
“There will be a period of adjustment, but that is what I think we need to see,” Johnson told the BBC’s Andrew Marr on Sunday.
Pushed on what he planned to do to prevent the needless incineration of hundreds of thousands of pigs, due to labour shortages, Johnson flippantly told Marr that “I hate to break it to you Andrew but I’m afraid our food processing industry does involve killing a lot of animals.”
In this way Johnson and his party are attempting to claim three contradictory positions at the same time. Within the space of a few days they have claimed that:
There are no shortages.
The shortages are not caused by Brexit.
The shortages are partly caused by Brexit, but a good thing and all part of a bigger plan.
Not all of these positions can be true at the same time and in reality none of them are.
There are shortages in both labour and supply across the UK. Those shortages are partly caused by Brexit, they are not a good thing, and there is not an obvious broader plan to transition to a higher wage economy.
So whether it’s Johnson struggling to explain his own conflicting messages, or whether it’s Baker searching desperately in vain for ways to win back the thousands of Conservative Remain voters he has lost, this week in Manchester has highlighted how Brexit is finally coming back to bite the Conservative party.
This fact is already reflected in the polling.
A survey by pollsters Opinium this week found that over two thirds (69%) of the public now think the government has handled the current crisis badly with half (49%) saying that Brexit is now having a negative impact on the UK economy (including 26% of Leave voters).
With shortages only set to worsen over the coming months, those numbers are only likely to get worse for the Conservatives and their attempts to distance themselves from their own Brexit project are only set to increase.
Boris Johnson and his party may have won the Brexit war in 2016, but all the signs from this week in Manchester is that they are now starting to lose the peace.