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Because “nothing has changed”, the eruptions of 2016 will return – but with more force


February 26, 2018   7 mins


The period after Britain voted for Brexit could have been a great opportunity for the Conservatives. The party had been given the chance to respond to a  a clear vote for change from the nation’s more disadvantaged communities – communities that turned out in numbers not seen in modern times. From her speech on the steps of Downing Street, on becoming Prime Minister, Mrs May appeared to ‘get it’. But the appointment of the ultra-cautious Philip Hammond as her Chancellor served as a better indication of her government’s trajectory. The policies that she inherited from David Cameron and George Osborne – overwhelmingly geared to the middle classes – continued.


This could have been the moment at which Britain began to set out exciting plans to make use of the post-EU freedoms that its people had voted for. If, over the past 18 months, the British government had focused on crafting an intelligent immigration policy that would deliver control as well as the skilled labour that the economy needs… if it had taken advantage of low interest rates to build much-needed homes in the South and better infrastructure in the North… if it had drawn up a regulatory system to supercharge the competitiveness of the high-tech, life sciences and other industries of the future… if it had done even half of this, we wouldn’t look like such an enfeebled nation, obsessed with the terms of exit that the EU might give us. But Theresa May spent all of her political time on negotiations that are largely beyond her control, while failing to develop the policy freedoms that would have amounted to “taking back control”.



Those mass and vindictive sackings of talented people during her first 24 hours as PM were another indication that she had no intention of building a government of the talents to guide the country through the tricky time ahead. Her lack of respect for her new colleagues was never more obvious than in the process that produced the 2016 Tory election manifesto. Ministers weren’t even consulted on the draft policies affecting their own departments. The result was a succession of screw-ups, such as the rushed-then-aborted plan for long-term care, and a host of own goals on vote-determining issues such as animal welfare. But it was through her dismissal of the issues used by the Vote Leave campaign to win that 52% of the vote that the May administration’s arrogance would be most costly. She decided she had no loyalty to the Brexit pledges made by Boris Johnson and others – pledges which led to the biggest ever vote in the country’s history. Her subsequent actions have not only given rise to the idea that Leave was secured on something of a false mandate, eroding its legitimacy in some eyes, but they have failed to incite much enthusiasm for Brexit beyond harder core sovereignty-driven supporters. By failing to talk about how Brexit would deliver extra cash for the NHS (if not the £350 million on the infamous bus) or, for example, the abolition of VAT on fuel, the Government has nothing to tout beyond changes to the colour of British passports as one of very few retail policy benefits from leaving the EU. But, then, the May operation always seemed much more interested in ensuring that Boris Johnson could not emerge as a leadership rival, than honouring at least some of the pledges which Vote Leave had employed to make Brexit more than just a eurosceptic enterprise.

And, so, we arrive at today: 26 February 2018.

For nearly all of the 614 days between 23rd June 2016 and today, news bulletins and newspapers have been full of Brexit coverage but it has mostly been of a speculative nature. This, in large part, is because Theresa May’s “Brexit means Brexit” soundbite was not a device to bridge the moment between her unexpected appointment as PM and the articulation of a concrete plan for Britain’s post-EU identity. It was an early-warning sign of the vacuous premiership to come, along with more empty slogans. More alarming was her promise of a “red, white and blue Brexit”: while vacuous, it also suggested that Mrs May was, at heart, a Remainer trying to be a Leaver – but wasn’t really getting it.

Eurosceptic MPs gambled that – even after last year’s shock election result – Theresa May was their best hope. They were wrong. By failing to embrace any of Vote Leave’s key campaign pledges and failing to advance policies to help the victims of globalisation she has undermined confidence in the project they entrusted her with

Today, however, is not another day of yet more speculation. The well-trailed news is of a concrete nature. But it’s provided by Her Majesty’s Opposition, rather than HMG. Despite having Eurosceptic voting credentials to match those of Bill Cash, Bernard Jenkin, Iain Duncan Smith and all those other Tory MPs they walked through the Commons voting lobbies with for all those years, Jeremy Corbyn and his Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, have been won over by their Brexit spokesman’s tenacious campaign to move Labour policy towards a softer or (Eurosceptics would argue) dirtier, less clinical Brexit. Sir Keir Starmer has, in the process, emerged as a hugely significant figure in his party and can claim that his willingness to serve on Mr Corbyn’s frontbencher has been vindicated. His decision – and that of Emily Thornberry – was taken a long time before the 2016 election result and the similar willingness to be accommodating that winning votes elicited from the once staunch but now silent rows of anti-Corbynistas on the Labour benches.

But Labour’s decision to support membership of a permanent customs union isn’t merely an interesting sign of what might happen if Labour were to win power. It’s very possible that Mr Corbyn’s new policy will become the nation’s. For while Tory MPs such as Anna Soubry and Dominic Grieve suggested a loyalty to their PM’s Lancaster House speech and its approach to Brexit before the election, they’ve been attempting to sabotage it since their return to parliament. By defying three-line whips and defeating the government in votes on Brexit strategy, they have shot through May’s negotiating authority. Her parliamentary weakness has given Brussels the upper hand in talks where they were already holding the best cards.

It’s clearly time to conclude that the gamble by Eurosceptic MPs, made in the days after the shock of the Tories’ general election result, has failed. They calculated that ousting Mrs May might produce a leader less committed to Brexit, or without the mandate that she could claim from her vote haul. While the risk they took was understandable, it ignored all of the evidence that Mrs May simply wasn’t up to the job. She had lost the unlosable election – throwing away the majority that, only two years earlier, David Cameron had secured in the unwinnable election. She had promised big on social justice but had delivered almost nothing. And no one should have been surprised. The shambolic Child Abuse Inquiry that she launched as Home Secretary wasn’t an aberration but too typical of her time in that ministry.

Donald Trump is another politician who emerged from 2016’s explosion of populist anger but in trade, tax and other key policies his administration looks more like it belongs to the Republican Party that he promised to replace than the new one the voters of Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania had hoped for. Credit: PA Images
Not just Britain and America
Brexit and Trump are only two illustrations of the populism sweeping advanced democracies.

In France the established parties saw their support collapse and more than two-thirds of the vote in the first round of the presidential election went to candidates promising substantial change.

Germany’s two main parties have seen their combined support slump to post-war lows.

And across the former communist nations of eastern Europe we have seen a flourishing of the kind of “illiberal democracies” championed by Hungary’s Orban.

This year the attention moves to Italy and the populist parties that opinion polls suggest will hold the balance of power after the country’s general election.

This matters because the times in which we live – a time in which technological, economic and social change is producing massive voter turbulence in so many nations – demand less-of-the-same-old from politicians. But since 2016, the only remarkable thing we’ve noticed is the determined continuity of all those institutions and national establishments that were found wanting:

  • Mrs May has not launched any major resets of tax, welfare, housing or infrastructure policies. In her tin-eared reaction to the Grenfell fire tragedy, she demonstrated that any sort of meaningful response was always going to be beyond her – even when the tragedy was impossibly stark.
  • There’s scant evidence of policy change on the other side of the Atlantic either. Mr Trump’s recent tax cuts went largely to the wealthy and to the donor class interests. The swamp hasn’t been drained, but has proved its sticky hold on the politicians that it feeds.
  • Neither May nor Trump has done what was promised on immigration; neither has a plan for the tech changes that are the primary cause of blue collar unemployment; nor has either shown any inclination to reverse the community breakdown that is atomising life for the old working classes.
  • Nations such Greece may vote for change, but change doesn’t come. Europe is enjoying a recovery at the moment but the social damage caused by the extreme austerity and unemployment that disfigured the EU’s southern periphery for a decade will not be easily repaired. The quantitative easing deployed by the European Central Bank is exacerbating wealth inequalities in the long-run as the price for its short-tern benefits.
  • The media, driven by commercial instincts, is getting worse. Pro-EU newspapers that didn’t see phenomena such Brexit or Trump coming have not reset their journalism to better understand the countries they report upon. Instead, they are telling their Remainer or anti-Trump readerships what they want to hear because, from the FT, to CNN, to the New York Times, there is commercial advantage to be gained on that path. But in pursing profit and running OpEd pages where, invariably, only one view is heard, the divisions that the democratic uprisings have underlined, have been intensified rather than healed.
  • Intolerance of others seems to be greatest in those institutions that should be most open-minded – notably in academia.

As a result, the anger of voters isn’t abating. Look at Germany. Or Austria. Or most of central Europe. And, as a result, we have the Sanders and Corbyn phenomena. Stagnant wages for those at the bottom; the realisation that middle-class jobs – as well as working-class ones – are going to be disrupted by automation; the increasing power of the tech giants; monopolisation in energy, banking, supermarket and other key economic sectors. All these concerns are powering the resurgence of the left-Wing politics that Thatcher, Reagan and their followers assumed had been buried.

Within Britain, the Tory response cannot just be to put forward a different PM or a better EU negotiations strategy (after all, it might now be too late). No, there has to be dramatic policy change from whoever is No 10’s next resident. They could, by way of example:

  • Build on the credibility of seven years of deficit reduction and borrow for major infrastructure investments in northern and poorer parts of the country
  • Invest in the roads and broadband that are high return investments; scrapping projects, such as HS2 and Hinkley Point, that are products of powerful business lobbies rather than sound economics.
  • Scrap the tax cuts for the middle classes and redirect them to the poor.
  • Change the compulsory purchase laws so the nation, rather than landowners, gets most of the billions of pounds of windfall from planning permissions.
  • Don’t match Labour’s tuition fees policy – that helps the already comfortable – but promise to prioritise vocational education and the early intervention schemes that really determine children’s life chances.

Eurosceptics will complain about Labour’s policy shift today, but by backing a leader who did nothing to build a broad case for Brexit and who failed to build an inclusive agenda that might have produced more goodwill to the government from Remainers, they have only themselves to blame.

The forces behind populism
Some believe that the populist insurgencies will fade away as the impact of the financial crash recedes and growth returns. But technological change will soon threaten middle class jobs – as will China’s upgrading of its own economic system. The social atomisation at the heart of poorer communities, most seen in family breakdown, is also continuing and contributing to an epidemic of insecurity and loneliness.

Even if populism fails to win majorities in many countries, good governments will do more to address the disproportionate effects of change on those bearing the brunt of it.

The post-2016 period can be summarised in one of Mrs May’s soundbites: “Nothing has changed.” Nearly nothing anyway. Nearly nothing for those on stagnant incomes. Nearly nothing for those adversely affected by immigration and tech change. Nearly nothing for those living in unhappy medium-sized and deindustrialised towns. Nearly nothing for those working for large multinational firms from which little security or job satisfaction comes.

Until there is a sense of national reset, the Government will continue to struggle. The weakness of its Brexit strategy is, ultimately, rooted in its failure to make a difference. Eurosceptics are losing because nothing has changed and they won’t be the only ones to lose if that continues to be the case.


In coming weeks UnHerd will be taking an in-depth look at the key factors that are preventing politicians, government machines, central bankers, media organisations and other influencers from delivering the resets that critical numbers within advanced democracies are seeking.

Tim Montgomerie was most recently a columnist and comment editor for The Times of London. Before that journalistic turn he was steeped in centre right politics, founding the Conservative Christian Fellowship, then the Centre for Social Justice and, just over ten years ago, ConservativeHome.com.


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