Brexit has destroyed the Conservative art of statecraft - and it could take decades to rebuild - Barnaby Towns

This article was initially published by The Independent and shared on the CGE website with the agreement of the author.

Some 10 Conservative leadership elections have taken place since that party’s MPs first directly elected the country’s leader. Edward Heath’s 1965 election, completed in days rather than weeks, ended the reign of what Tory rising star Iain MacLeod called the "magic circle" of Old Etonians. This undemocratic process had, McLeod complained, stitched up Alec Douglas-Home’s elevation as leader, and therefore prime minister, in 1963.

The current contest, with many more candidates, party members potentially choosing the next prime minister and drug revelations is a world away from 1965's party in personnel and policy.  

Five years earlier, Harold Macmillan’s Cape Town speech boldly signalled the end of empire, followed by his 1961 bid, supported by Douglas-Home as foreign secretary and Heath as chief negotiator, to join the fledgling Common Market. Still an MP, Winston Churchill had backed the bold move, writing to his Conservative Association chair defending Macmillan’s approach.

Today’s Conservative Party mirrors that of 1965’s leadership election. Back then, anti-marketeer Enoch Powell earned only 15 votes – a parliamentary weakness similar to pro-European "mutineer" MPs, minus recent defections. Sam Gyimah, the sole Remainer candidate, couldn’t even muster the eight votes required to enter this contest, even though the Remain camp currently leads Leave by double digits in national opinion polls. Similarly, Rory Stewart, the only candidate to rule out ending British participation in the European project on the harshest of terms – Brexit with no deal – can look forward to rapid ejection from the race. Both candidates, like Powell, back policies on Europe that guarantee their defeat.

Much has changed in Britain since those days, however. Heath’s successful 1972 European Economic Community membership negotiation and the Thatcher-Major economic reforms, later accepted by New Labour, arguably stemmed Britain’s relative decline.

Britain is now, per person, as wealthy as France. Yet the national interest in the new century of American, Chinese and Europe’s tripartite power, in a global economy with Empire long gone and Commonwealth no more than a shadow, is unchanged.

In this era's context, self-imposed isolation – and the loss of influence involved in being impacted by Europe’s decisions and yet not shaping them – makes even less strategic sense than in the party’s pro-European days. And now a great complex string of international agreements, including Margaret Thatcher’s championing of the single market and Major’s backing of further integration via the Maastricht Treaty, are to be discarded without a clue about how to replace their benefits.

Unlike previous leaders, 2019’s aspirants can’t say, as Thatcher did during 1975’s referendum, that “by turning our backs we would forfeit our right to influence what happens in the Community. But what happens in the Community will inevitably affect us.” A new Tory populism has replaced such realpolitik.

Tories fiercely opposed 1975’s plebiscite, believing 1970’s general election and 1972’s Commons majority for membership sufficient and representative democracy superior to the direct variety.  Their newly-elected leader, Margaret Thatcher, described the single-issue vote as the “device of dictators and demagogues.” Heath, in a rare meeting of minds opening the Tory ‘Yes’ campaign, characterised it as “abhorrent,” “unnecessary” and “a party-political manoeuvre."

Tragically, Tories subsequently embraced such dangerous tactics themselves, pledging their own referendum to staunch the nationalist tide that now threatens to engulf the party’s legendary shrewdness. Betting the house on victory, David Cameron took the gamble that destroyed his political career. Far from neutering the nationalist Right, however, his failed referendum ploy empowered it; now its preference for purity above power and pipe-dreams before pragmatism is stronger than ever.  

In shires and coastal communities, among the elderly, and recently captured seats in declining Britain, the Brexit Party menaces Tories as they attempt the impossible: safeguarding national interest while following an ageing, narrow referendum result. Meanwhile, pro-European options eat away at their affluent, educated and urban vote and Remain polls at 61 per cent.

From record election and polling lows, Tories can only attract those Leavers by repelling Remainers - more than four million of whom voted Conservative even in 2017. And that is not the only thing the Conservative Party is now losing.

Sadly, Brexit’s displacement of the national interest as the Tories’ lodestar on a journey from Empire through Europe to Little England, may delay rediscovery of the lost art of Conservative statecraft until the next leadership election. Or perhaps even one or two after that

Barnaby Towns is a former Conservative Party special adviser.