Bitter fight over Brexit set to overshadow Conservative conference

The new PM will set out her vision for a moderate, inclusive Conservatism, but battles over Europe will dominate in Birmingham

When David Cameron delivered his first party conference speech as prime minister in October 2010, he mentioned the big society 10 times and Europe hardly at all. The Tory-Lib Dem coalition was still young and he was full of praise for Nick Clegg. The word Brexit was not even in the lexicon, never mind the speech. A compassionate, pragmatic Conservatism was his central theme.

Theresa May will open her first Conservative conference as PM in the same Birmingham arena but in a political world transformed. She will lead a session entitled Global Britain: Making a Success of Brexit. She will also announce plans for a great repeal bill that will remove the 1972 European Communities Act from the statute book on the day the UK leaves. David Davis, secretary of state for exiting the European Union, and Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, who led the Leave campaign over the summer, will also speak, along with international development secretary Priti Patel, another hardline Brexiter. One MP who campaigned to leave the EU predicted that the two-hour debate would be a Brexit fest with much whooping and cheering from the Tory grassroots. Cameron and George Osborne, who fought tooth and nail to stay in the EU, are not expected to show their faces in Birmingham for the entire four days.

The stage is therefore clear for May to make her mark, amid competing demands from rival wings of her party for more detail about how she plans to make Britain succeed outside the EU. Will the UK turn its back on the single market completely? Or will it negotiate a halfway house with some access for UK firms, and participation in some form in its rules on free movement of people? Whatever path she chooses, it will be strewn with Brexit mines.

In what now seems like political prehistory, Cameron failed completely to shut down Tory arguments over the EU by imploring his MPs to stop banging on about Europe. In the end he was pushed by his party and Ukip into pledging an in/out referendum that led the UK out of the EU and ended his premiership. Now after Brexit May is also discovering that prime-ministerial words on Europe often fall on deaf Tory ears. Her attempt to reassure doubters by insisting that Brexit means Brexit, her vow not to give a running commentary on negotiations and now her pledge of a great repeal bill to do the inevitable and scrap European Communities Act will not silence the warring party. The vote to leave on 23 June has not ended the Conservative partys interminable division over Europe, just opened a new, more intense phase of combat between those on the right who want Brexit to be hard, fast and total, others on the pro-EU left who want something soft that keeps involvement in the single market, and middle-way pragmatists who want a solution somewhere in between.

Iain Duncan Smith is among Tory MPs demanding a hard Brexit. Photograph: Daniel Leal-Olivas/PA

Even before they set off for the Midlands, all sides in the Tory Brexit conflict were calling for more detail from May, as they tugged at her opposing sides. Several former cabinet ministers and leading Conservative backbenchers are not only demanding a hard Brexit to restore full sovereignty by leaving the single market and taking back control of UK borders but what would in effect be a take it or leave it Brexit as soon as is humanly possible.

Buoyed by signs that the UK economy is performing better than expected after the Brexit vote, they want Mays government to table its demands to the other 27 member states immediately, and insist that if these are not met quickly then the UK should walk out of negotiations, and simply leave. Senior Conservative MP Bernard Jenkin says article 50 of the Lisbon treaty, under which formal divorce talks will take place, is a potential trap. We need to be aware that article 50, as intended, could tie us up in knots. Nobody can guarantee that there will be an acceptable agreement at the end of the process anyway. So we must be prepared to leave without any formal agreement if necessary, or the commission has us over a barrel. Leaving without a formal withdrawal agreement would be messy, but a messy Brexit is what many have suggested the commission and much of the EU would like.

These hardline anti-EU Tories have, over the years, become so weary of Brussels extending its powers, and cynical about the UK governments desire and ability to stop it, that they fear the spoils of referendum victory may still be denied them at the death. If ministers dither, they fear a Brexit fudge which will leave the UK little, if at all, freer than before.

Impatience is growing, too, among Brexit-supporting business leaders, who will also use the Birmingham meeting to demand more clarity. Richard Tice, CEO of asset management company Quidnet Capital Partners, who helped fund the Leave.EU campaign, will be launching his new group Leave Means Leave in Birmingham. He told the Observer that what UK businesses need more than a speedy Brexit is certainty about when it will happen. But he does nonetheless want the UK out by early 2019. Global and domestic businesspeople want certainty around timing, so they can plan, he said. The prime minister should clarify soonest when she is serving article 50, which should be no later than the first quarter of 2017, and that we will leave no later than two years afterwards, with or without an EU deal.

Theresa May, pictured last week, is under pressure from left and right on Europe. Photograph: Matt Cardy/PA

In a report published on Sunday, Leave Means Leave urges ministers to fight for a zero-tariff free-trade deal (similar to that which Canada is set to sign at the end of October) with the EU once they have triggered article 50.

The feeling among most Tory MPs and activists as the conference begins is that May, Davis, Johnson and Liam Fox, the international trade secretary, are tending towards a hard Brexit along the lines Tice would like. Increasingly there is a realisation that because immigration was the main concern for most Leave voters, continued single market membership will be, as one minister put it, politically unsellable, as it would involve accepting EU free-movement rules. Jonathan Isaby, editor of a new website, Brexit Central, set up by Matthew Elliott, the former chief executive of Vote Leave, said anything less than hard Brexit would be seen by the public as a betrayal. The signals from the government are getting ever clearer that we will see a clean Brexit: restoring full sovereignty to Westminster, taking back control of our borders, and giving elected British politicians the power to negotiate our own trade deals around the globe. This clean Brexit is what the British public voted for in such large numbers at the referendum. Any deal that involved membership of the single market which is being promoted by some Remain campaigners unwilling to accept the verdict of the British people would be akin to a phoney Brexit and totally unacceptable.


But the pro-EU Tory left, backed by serious and powerful pro-European business leaders and groups, will have none of it. They will be in Birmingham making precisely the opposite arguments. They accept that Brexit will happen, but say the UK will face serious economic harm unless it retains maximum access to the single market, even if this means accepting some freedom of movement. Some Tories, such as ex-minister Anna Soubry, say an end to EU free movement would be a disaster for many UK firms, who will no longer be able to staff their operations.

Former education secretary Nicky Morgan, who was sacked by May in July, will take up a new role as chair of the pro-European Tory Mainstream group, and warn that a hard Brexit would not only be an act of economic self-harm, but also risk unleashing and legitimising bigotry. In a hard-hitting speech just hours after Mays, Morgan will say: There are already those for whom the referendum result is not enough they want us to have a hard Brexit which cuts us off from the EU, turns our back on the single market and allows people to say things about their fellow citizens that promote intolerance and bigotry. We should, and we will, ask questions about Brexit. There will be complex negotiations, and it would be wrong to throw away, without question, access to the single market simply because free movement is likely to be part of those negotiations too.

Former education secretary Nicky Morgan is calling for flexibility on Brexit. Photograph: Richard Gardner/Rex Shutterstock

Cheering her on will be former chancellor Kenneth Clarke and ex-minister Nick Herbert, as well as representatives from UK industry. The warning last week from Nissans chief executive Carlos Ghosn that Brexit uncertainty and possible tariffs could halt investment in the UKs biggest car factory in Sunderland was an early shot in a battle that the industry will step up in Birmingham, and sent shudders through the Brexiters ranks. Ghosn said his firm would need compensation for tax barriers that might result from Britain leaving the European Union.

Mike Hawes, chief executive of the Society of Motor Manufacturers, has now added his voice to those asking for a Brexit plan for business to use when looking to the future. The current uncertainty is not conducive to attracting manufacturing investment to the UK. The government must do all it can to maintain the competitiveness of the UK automotive sector, which has been hugely successful in boosting exports, creating jobs and generating economic growth in recent years.

Morgan, who has already criticised Mays plans for extending grammar schools, sees a wider danger for the party from Brexit, fearing that it could instil a rightwing intolerant mentality and a desire to vacate the centre ground, which would have disastrous and ugly consequences. Look at what happened to the moderate mainstream Republicans in America who didnt defend their views against a Tea Party-led lurch to the right eventually they ended up with Donald Trump as candidate, she will argue.

May is working hard to show that her government, rather than being rightwing, hard-edged and Brexit-obsessed, is overall a sensitive and moderate one. On entering Downing Street she made clear that she wanted to govern for all and not just the privileged few. She quickly ditched much of the Cameron and Obsorne agenda, and signalled an end to austerity, angering many of the Cameroons in the process. On Saturday the announcement by work and pension secretary Damian Green that tens of thousands of people claiming the main benefit for long-term sickness will no longer face repeated medical assessments to keep their payments, showed, Green said, that the government was hard-headed not hard-hearted.

At conference, some predict further measures for the less well-off, including a shift toward helping those in the rental sector who the Tories are often accused of ignoring. But hard as May tries to build her own programme, her first conference and her first term as prime minister will inevitably be dominated by the Brexit debate and Brexit divisions.

So deep is the Tory divide on the issue, and so small is Mays majority in parliament (17), that many MPs across all main parties believe she could still, despite her denials so far, call a general election in spring or autumn next year. With Labour on the floor, they argue, she could then win her own mandate for the kind of Brexit she wants and increase the Tory majority to much nearer 100. An Opinium/Observer poll on Sunday has put the Tories (on 38%), seven points ahead of Labour (31%). Ukip is on 16% and the Lib Dems and SNP on 5% each.

But even more encouragingly for those Tories who would like her to go to the country, more than twice as many members of the public (44%) think May would be the best prime minister than believe the same of Jeremy Corbyn (just 17%). While Brexit divisions will take centre stage in Birmingham, the issue of whether to call a snap election that could give her the power to govern despite them will probably be exercising May more than she will publicly admit.

The Rt Hon Kenneth Clarke QC MP. Photograph: Felix Clay/for the Guardian

The three groups and their aims

The hard Brexiters (Theresa May, Boris Johnson, Liam Fox, David Davis, Andrea Leadsom) Leave the single market and give up on a deal under which the EU accepts that British regulations have equal weight. This could lead to extra paperwork for businesses exporting to the EU, but it would see the UK government having free rein to curb free movement and establish trade deals with a host of other countries on its own terms.

The soft Brexiters (Anna Soubry, Ken Clarke, Nicky Morgan, Michael Heseltine) Some see a reluctance within this group to even leave the EU, and it looks like they want another vote on the terms of Brexit once negotiated. If the UK is to leave, however, membership of the single market is seen as key – even if that leads to few restrictions on freedom of movement.

In the middle (Damian Green, Amber Rudd, Philip Hammond) Access to the single market, rather than membership, is vital. The UK would not accept EU jurisdiction over standards of goods, but both parties would be willing to recognise as equally valid each others regulations on the safety of widgets, for example. It is said that the UK could follow the model of Liechtenstein: access to the market for goods, but with some control of inward migration.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/oct/01/tory-conference-brexit-divisions-moderate

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