One of the central issues in British conservative politics at the moment is the question of trust. It goes beyond debates over whether MPs in general should honour the referendum result, or the actions of those now in The Party Formerly Known as the Independent Group, Dominic Grieves and others, or even the failure to leave the EU on 29th March as the Prime Minister told us over 100 times we would. It’s a fundamental concern that many of those we elected don’t mean, and never have meant a single word they’ve said about delivering Brexit.
Nothing signifies this more than the fact that Philip Hammond, the Chancellor of a government which stood on a manifesto of ‘No Deal is better than a Bad Deal’, a government that repeated that slogan again and again, is now saying that he would vote with the Opposition in order to stop us leaving without a deal.
This isn’t the case of Dominic Grieve, a back-bencher, who may have stood on that manifesto but obviously didn’t agree with it (not that I am justifying Grieve’s behaviour – but back-benchers rebelling is nothing new). It’s the Chancellor, literally the second most powerful person in the government which committed to deliver Brexit with or without a deal. What can it say to supporters of Brexit other than that all their suspicions about Hammond secretly working to block Brexit whilst in government are true? The number of ministers who resigned rather than sign up to ‘No Deal if necessary’ is also telling. It’s not their position in itself; it’s the fact that given their position, they were still willing to work for May’s government, demonstrating that despite the public promises, they knew that that government would never have contemplated No Deal.
Set aside whether or not you agree that ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ or indeed with Brexit at all. It should be possible for people on all sides to see why this level of betrayal colours everything about how Conservative-voting Leave supporters see the government and the party. At its worst this spills over into accusations of betrayal by civil servants, the Bank of England and otherwise. More reasonably, it is why many of us would not even entertain the idea of Hunt as Prime Minister. Hunt’s own words – refusing to guarantee Brexit by Christmas – reinforce this, but even if they didn’t, we have been burned too many times before. It is similar to the Liberal Democrats broken promise on tuition fees: it was not simply that it was an important issue for many Lib Dem voters, it was that MPs had broken a personal pledge on the subject that led to their annihilation in the 2015 election.
Of course, many MPs have been unwavering in their support of Brexit; not just Leavers such as Boris Johnomson, Rees-Mogg, Patel, Baker and Raab but also some former Remainers such as Truss, Rowley and my own MP Grant Shapps. By number, they’re probably a majority – but there have been too many, too senior who have broken their word. Any consideration of the voting behaviour of conservative-leaning Leave voters – in any election – has to fully understand this fact.
It’s my hope, like many others, that under Boris, the party will actually fulfill its promises and begin the process of regaining trust. The early signs are very promising: everything points to him being absolutely determined to deliver Brexit by 31 October, deal or no deal. If he succeeds – or is no-confidenced in the attempt – I firmly believe the Tories can win the next election. For if Brexit isn’t delivered, predictions of a Canada-1993 style wipe-out are unlikely to be far off the mark.