By Jeff Townsend, Head of UK Public Affairs
More than a decade after David Cameron advised his party to ‘stop banging on about Europe’, the morning after the 2017 General Election it’s clear that Europe has torn the party asunder once again.
Why? For the simple reason that yesterday’s election, which feels like a loss even if the Tories got more votes than they have for 35 years, was all about Europe.
It was an election that never should have happened. The main reason Theresa May in the end decided to go to the country, when the economic indicators didn’t look great and her own honeymoon was coming to an end, was because she feared the circumstances in 2020, when the fixed term Parliament was due to end, could be even worse. Who would want to try to sell no deal to the British public, or even worse a deal which meant, say, an €80bn leaving bill, when the voters were promised £350m a week extra for the NHS?
Of course, May’s other driver was to try to build a bigger majority so as to sideline the hardline Euro-sceptics and give herself more negotiating flexibility. But in the end, the opposite happened. The election was not about Brexit for most people. Polls showed that most considered it a done deal, and were much more concerned about the economy starting to turn down t the state of the NHS, crumbling social services and affordable housing.
May and team did not help themselves with the appalling campaign they ran. The shine has certainly gone from Lynton Crosby. ‘Strong and Stable’ became a British joke, and the strategy to keep her away from electors and almost de-personalise a decent if uncharismatic woman clearly back-fired. Keeping out of national debates looked arrogant; the unheard of mid-campaign u-turn on social care was the opposite of strength and stability.
On the other side, Jeremy Corbyn’s warm and personal style and anti-austerity message certainly galvanised the young and the left. And May’s decision to utterly dismiss, even ridicule, the views of the 48% of the country that voted Remain gave them a strong incentive to vote Labour. In the old maxim, Oppositions don’t win elections, Governments lose them.
It has to remembered that Labour still lost, in propitious circumstances, and it remains to be seen whether Corbyn and the Left have the will, or strategic sense, to make the centrist compromises they need to if they want to form a Government in 2022. (And the night was very bad for the SNP too: the chances of a second Scottish independence referendum are diminishing rapidly).
Mind you, by then, that European problem might have ripped the Tories even further apart. What happens now, if a Tory Government in partnership with the DUP from Northern Ireland has a Commons majority of just two seats? What does that mean for membership of the Single Market and Customs Union, which even Brexit Minister David Davis conceded early this morning was now up for debate? Banging on about Europe is going to be the drumbeat for another 5 years – at least.