Those members of the Conservative Party who have strong nerves met in Birmingham to learn what policies Liz Truss and her colleagues wish to pursue. Their MPs were operating under the mandate for their policies supported by the electorate in December 2019. About 80,000 members had voted for Truss in the party’s secret ballot, but Truss had received less than half of the votes of Conservative MPs. Truss is the third leader of the party since the referendum in 2016 and, since clearly Brexit is not done, party members wanted to know how true the government would be to Brexit, particularly as Truss had voted Remain.
Observations by a former Conservative
The party hardly mentioned Brexit, which it regards as history. Most seem to accept Boris Johnson’s view that ‘Brexit is done’ despite the numerous loose ends left untied. The deep problems of implementing Brexit were not discussed. This showed that perhaps the party should really change its name to ‘Brexit Party’ or ‘British National Renewal Party’. But to propose that, would inevitably open up old wounds, because some of the Party’s MPs retain doubts about our exit from the European Union.
Brexit is not done
Two big problems make implementing Brexit particularly difficult. The government originally agreed that goods imported into Northern Ireland (in the EU for the purposes of the Treaty) from Britain (not in the EU) would be subject to customs checks, thus creating a border in the Irish sea. Northern Irish Unionist opposition to this made the government renege on part of the Treaty.
Later this made it impossible to form a governing authority in Northern Ireland. This carries the danger of power-sharing breaking down, with dangerous consequences for peace in Northern Ireland. The refusal of the American government to open free-trade talks with the UK (which Brexiters had always regarded as easy and inevitable) is a direct result of this.
Foreign Secretary Cleverly
James Cleverly, the new foreign secretary, runs the most demoralised government department. He is clearly embarrassed by this Northern Ireland protocol, which poisons our relations with Ireland, the EU and the USA. He has the difficult task of persuading the EU that we remain friends and wish to honour the Trade and Co-operation Treaty with the EU.
However, Brexit zealots have given the impression that they want to continue criticising the EU as they did during the referendum campaign. Fortunately, these die-hards were not in evidence at Birmingham. Perhaps Truss and Cleverly realise the enormous dangers of continuing the criticism of the EU. Cleverly made a particular point of stressing the importance of our friendship with France, which Truss had implicitly doubted during the leadership campaign.
It was quite clear at Birmingham that the ‘Conservative’ Party is seriously divided on other matters. The new home secretary, Suella Braverman, is in favour of stronger immigration controls, yet Truss and others have made it clear that the country needs foreign labour to fill numerous vacancies in agriculture and the health and social care sectors.
She also wants the UK to leave the European Convention on Human Rights, contrary to what Truss believes. Penny Mordaunt, the leader of the House, believes that social security benefits should be increased at the rate of inflation, contrary to what Truss seems to be thinking. Truss’s team has made clear her displeasure at this view.
Feeling of crisis
Truss’s and Kwasi Kwarteng’s confusion on tax policy and the dramatic adverse effects on the exchange rate, interest rates and British companies, added to the feeling of crisis for the country. The UK economy and companies have been badly damaged by these events.
It seemed evident at Birmingham that the party has senior members holding opinions which run counter to those of other senior members. This is troubling for the party and for the nation. It shows that the ‘Conservative’ party could do with having a long period in opposition to sort out its views and not burden the country with the problem of ruling the country at a difficult time whilst arguing strongly with itself.
When Brexit is included in the mix of problems facing the country, as it should because Brexit is not done, the need for the present government to go into opposition becomes even stronger.