Friday 8 July 2022

Vote Tory to rejoin Single Market?


Labour have said that, if the Tories do not remove Boris Johnson from Downing Street in the next few days, they will table a formal motion of no confidence in the House of Commons. It’s unlikely to be passed, and I doubt that Labour would really want it to be either. They’d much prefer the spectacle of a whole host of Tory MPs who’ve openly declared their lack of confidence in the PM lining up to cast their votes expressing their complete confidence in his government. But unlikely is not the same as impossible; there is just a possibility that it might succeed and lead to an immediate general election.

There is another unlikely but not impossible event on the horizon as well. It’s always seemed to me that the ‘investigation’ into Starmer’s bottle of beer was a rather pathetic attempt by the Tories to try and create some sort of false equivalence with Johnson’s incessant disregard for the rules which he himself introduced, and that the police would eventually conclude that no rules had been broken. I could be wrong, though – whilst the force doing the investigation isn’t the badly-flawed Met, it is still possible that Mr Plod will find an interpretation of the rules under which they can issue fines to ‘Keith’ and his deputy, both of whom have already committed to resigning if that were to happen. That could leave us holding a general election in which both the main parties were under caretaker management, and neither could tell us who would be PM if they won. It’s a fascinating prospect, and the fact that it is not impossible underlines, yet again, just how badly broken the UK’s political system is.

Leaving aside my personal fantasy of watching two leaderless parties struggle their way through the contest, in the real world the likelier scenario is that we face an election next Spring (whilst the UK system does not necessitate a new PM calling an election, there is a general expectation that he or she should do so). The Tory Party will be under a new leader who will be going head to head with Keith. Given the need for the new Tory PM to put some distance between him or herself and the disaster that went before, there is one obvious policy choice which he or she could make which might actually transform the chances of success, and that is to promise to negotiate membership of the EU single market (SM) and customs union (CU). Membership would, at a stroke, resolve the problem of the NI Protocol and help to reduce shortages of some products. It would also boost economic growth and have an impact on inflation. Most businesses would welcome the move – the Tory Party might again come to be regarded as the party of business rather than the party of F*** Business (© Boris Johnson, 2018). Best of all (from the Tories’ perspective) it would completely wrongfoot Labour, who, after Starmer’s commitment last week not to seek membership of the SM or CU, would find itself arguing that it alone could make the impossible work, by following a plan remarkably similar to that of Johnson but without the petulance. Remainers might find that, despite all that has happened, the Tory Party is more in line with their views than Labour.

Could it happen? Certainly there are those in the Tory Party, such as Tobias Ellwood, who are arguing in favour of such a move. Dan Hannan (then an MEP), one of the earliest prominent Brexiteers, said in 2015 that “Absolutely nobody is talking about threatening our place in the Single Market”, and has said this year that "Staying in the single market, or large parts of it, would have saved us a lot of trouble". Despite what many Brexiteers currently believe, there was never anything inconsistent between leaving the EU and remaining in the SM and CU; the link between the two only became ‘necessary’ after the vote had been held. Such views do not currently appear to be mainstream in the Conservative Party, although it’s unclear whether that’s because people don’t hold them or are simply parroting the (current) official line. But neither are they entirely eccentric, particularly among business donors, whose influence (in normal, non-Johnsonian times) should not be underestimated. The question is, perhaps, less about whether the party could change its views on such a major issue (it can, and frequently does, usually at the whim of the leader), and more about whether a candidate talking about making such a change could ever make it into the final two when MPs vote for the next leader. If it were to happen, it’s much more likely to be the result of a candidate who says the opposite to get elected as leader and then changes his or her mind after taking up residence in Downing Street in the light of getting a ‘full briefing’ on the economic realities. They call it ‘pragmatism’ (although others might see it as a lack of any underlying principle), something which has rarely been in short supply under the Tories under all leaders except the current one. And saying one thing to get elected and then doing the opposite is not exactly an unusual proposition for Tories. Even without Boris.

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