Will the Brexit arguments kill off the British political system as we know it?
PUBLISHED: 05:30 24 January 2019
Brexit is back firmly on the political agenda - and not just in the House of Commons where the Prime Minister is making another futile attempt to push through her deal that was rejected by two thirds of MPs nine days ago.
In Ipswich last week we had a visit from Brexiteer pin-up and Wetherspoons pub boss Tim Martin who addressed a bar-full of people about the evils of the EU and why we’d all be living in the land of milk and honey (available on the Wetherspoons breakfast menu) if we left with no deal.
If he came with the aim of changing anyone’s mind, then he would have been disappointed. It was clear that no one in the pub had come in with an open mind willing to be converted one way or another.
Those with coffees and cokes in hand (it was 10.30am) were almost all in support of Tim Martin while a small number who appeared determined not to give him their trade were there to challenge his views.
It made good theatre – and gave me a couple of interesting stories – but as a political event it was pretty insignificant.
Last week there was also a smidgeon of controversy when the town’s Tories started jumping up and down about an interview Labour MP Sandy Martin had done on Radio Suffolk.
With a little bit of careful editing political blogger Guido Fawkes had made a robust (but fair) interview with Sandy Martin look like he was disrespecting his voters by trying to keep open the possibility of a second referendum on membership of the EU.
The blog pointed out that 58% of voters in Ipswich (Mr Martin says it was 56% of voters in his constituency, not including the three wards in the north west) voted to leave the EU – and that Labour promised to respect that vote in the 2017 election.
That is true, but what Labour actually said was: “We will end Theresa May’s reckless approach to Brexit, and seek to unite the country around a Brexit deal that works for every community in Britain.”
So while they said they were looking for a Brexit deal, they were explicitly ruling out a ‘no deal’ approach.
And having covered the 2017 election and knowing Sandy Martin’s long-expressed views on the subject, I really don’t believe that anyone voted for him a year after the referendum believing him to be an ardent Brexiteer.
Labour’s current policy on Brexit is a mess. It would really rather not talk about it. How on earth can it be taken seriously when it produces a party political broadcast during the current crisis without mentioning the B-word?
Individual MPs like Sandy Martin, David Lammy and Chukka Umunna have well-known views.
How they reconcile them with Labour Brexiteers or those who are trying to run away from the subject (which often appears to include their party leader) I really don’t know. The party seems to want to be all things to all voters.
Similarly the Tories are starting to look totally dysfunctional as a political identity. How can anyone see anything coherent about a party that includes both Jacob Rees Mogg and Anna Soubry?
We hear that the Conservative membership is now leaning towards a “no deal” Brexit – but the party’s 124,000 members only make up 0.26% of the electorate. How much attention should MPs pay to them on this?
In London and in some other large cities things are different – I’ve spoken to Tories from there who are close to the business community and are genuinely astonished by the attitude of party members in the country as a whole which they see as profoundly anti-business.
Labour is conflicted because it knows many voters in its northern and midlands heartlands are keen on Brexit while its members would like to stay in the EU if possible.
So what is clear from both parties is that the strains within them are massive – there are urban/rural splits, geographical splits, and establishment/anti-establishment splits.
There are increasing splits within the parties between their MPs – and probably their members. I know of members of the business community in Suffolk who no longer take part in political activities because they feel party members are no longer willing to listen to their concerns and see little point in trying to influence policy that way.
Which all makes me start to question whether the current political party system has any future – could that be the ultimate victim of the prolonged Brexit debate?