The EU referendum result allowed the Tory party to effectively win a landslide victory against itself. Instead of being viewed as an incumbent party with 6 years in office, they are instead being treated as a newly-elected government. This honeymoon undoubtedly helped the Tories win a seat in Labour’s backyard – but it may not last long.
It’s not surprising to hear many commentators hailing Labour’s loss of Copeland as an historic defeat and a portent of doom at the next election. Conventional wisdom says that by-elections are voters’ opportunity to lash out at incumbent governments. To see a so-called Labour safe seat change hands to the Tories after 6 years of Conservative rule is understandably worrying for the Labour camp. But in this post Brexit, post Trump world, so much pre-held political wisdom must now be considered obsolete.
For Britain, everything changed on the June 23rd 2016. With the resignation of David Cameron and the subsequent removal of almost his entire cabinet, the Tories effectively re-branded themselves as a new government – with Theresa May appointing her new cabinet of Brexiteers and behaving as if she’d just won a general election.
The Brexit vote was such a watershed moment for the Tories (and for the country), that the continuity that would normally happen when a leader hands over power to their successor (i.e. Blair/Brown) was simply not present.
To the general public, Theresa May and her government represent a brand new Government – marking a clean break with the Cameron ministry that preceded it. That they are in fact one and the same (with a new leader) is a technicality lost on the public. They perceive May and Co with the same sense of novelty and vigor normally only enjoyed by a party winning power after years spent in opposition.
In effect, the Brexit result allowed the Tory party to win a landslide victory against itself – and reap all the benefits (their showing in the polls and this by-election win certainly bears that out.)
There’s no doubt that at the next general election, the winning party will be the one deemed most able to manage and deliver Brexit. The Tories already have a huge advantage here, because in the eye’s of the public they own the issue of Brexit – it is as much their pet project as the NHS is for Labour. The figureheads of the leave campaign were all Tories (with the exception of Nigel Farage) and now some of the most fervent breixiteers (David Davies, Liam Fox and Boris Johnson) occupy senior cabinet positions.
But just as this Brexit rebirth has buoyed the Tories to heights not seen in decades, their self-assuredness may yet backfire. Their popularity stems from their clear message that we will be better off out of the EU than in it.
But the public’s view on what ‘better off’ really means may not match the eventual deal that the government delivers. For many leave voters, the leave campaign’s pledge to divert £350 million a week to the NHS was a strong argument for leaving. Even stronger was the pledge to significantly reduce immigration in the short term. The government are now saying that neither of these things may be deliverable.
Eurosceptic stalwarts like Daniel Hannan argue that these were never the core arguments for Brexit – and that ‘taking back control’ from Brussels and reclaiming our democratic independence were always the priorities. But this is a fantasy. While these may have been long held ambitions for some Tory backbenchers, there’s no doubt that without UKIP’s anti-immigration rhetoric, the question of EU membership would have remained a minor issue in the eyes of the public.
The period between the referendum result on June 28th 2016 and the triggering of Article 50 at the end of March 2017 may come to be seen as the ‘phoney war’ period of the whole Brexit saga. Until the Government’s ‘have our cake and eat it’ plan is put to the EU 27, there can be no certainty of the government achieving any of the aims it has spent the last 8 months filling the airwaves with. If things go sour, and leave voters feel they’ve been hoodwinked on the NHS and immigration promises, then this Tory fairytale that delivered them Copeland could well come to a sudden end.