May’s Euphoric Tories Embrace Brexit as the 52% Set the Toneby
Moderates bide time to make case for softer divorce from EU
Pro-EU lawmakers accept they must bow to referendum result
Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservative Party fully committed itself to ushering Britain out of the European Union this week, co-opting the language of those who campaigned for Brexit as it positioned itself as the champion of U.K. sovereignty and independence.
Just over three months after May’s predecessor, David Cameron, lost his campaign to keep Britain in the bloc, pro-EU voices were hard to find at the party’s annual conference in Birmingham, central England. Speakers were repeatedly applauded and cheered for references to the result of the June 23 referendum, while no one took to the stage to ask if it was a positive outcome for Britain’s future.
“We are going to be a fully independent, sovereign country, a country that is no longer part of a political union with supranational institutions that can override national parliaments and courts,” May said as she set the tone in her opening speech on Sunday. “That means we are going, once more, to have the freedom to make our own decisions on a whole host of different matters, from how we label our food to the way in which we choose to control immigration.”
May, who spoke in favor of staying in the EU during the referendum campaign, though not vociferously, said hers is the only party committed to delivering on the 52-percent-to-48-percent vote to leave. Her language led to speculation that she has now decided to pursue a “hard Brexit,” which would see Britain leaving the EU single market and its customs union in order to gain control over immigration.
High on Amphetamines
As delegates celebrated the exit vote, the pound hit a 31-year low in response to May’s comments, but even this news was seized on as a positive development for British exports. One pro-EU former minister, who asked not to be named, said party members are like a group of people high on amphetamines who will at some point come down.
Trade Secretary Liam Fox, a longtime opponent of the EU, was cheered by delegates when he hailed the “brave and historic decision” made in the referendum. He also ridiculed the warnings of economic damage made by Cameron during the campaign, drawing applause from delegates who just a year earlier had lauded the former prime minister.
“In case you haven’t noticed, the sky didn’t fall down on June 24,” he told delegates. “The prime minister has said clearly that Brexit means Brexit, and for those who believe it can be indefinitely postponed, or that there might be a second referendum, or that we might stay by some back-door mechanism, let me tell you: Theresa May is not someone who is known for saying anything other than what she absolutely means.”
Pro-European members of the party said they are waiting for the mood of celebration to calm down and some of the effects on business and the economy to become clear before arguing for a softer approach to the divorce from the EU.
“The realities of the negotiating process have not yet even started, and there’s going to be a need for pragmatic commonsense to be applied,” Dominic Grieve, who was attorney general in Cameron’s first government and campaigned to stay in the EU, said in an interview. “We haven’t even begun to scrape the surface. We have to keep our options open, not close them down.”
Former Education Secretary Nicky Morgan said the euphoria in the party was in part caused by relief at the end of the divisive referendum, which pitted Conservative activists against each other. The Tories must avoid moving too far to the right if they want to capitalize on the weakness of the opposition Labour Party and court the votes of the near half of the population who voted to stay in the EU, she said.
“The Conservative Party needs to be moderate and pragmatic, I firmly believe we win elections when we appeal to the mainstream majority,” Morgan, who heads a centrist Tory parliamentary group, said in an interview. “We must not forget the 48 percent when we’re negotiating our relationship with the EU.”
Stephen Hammond, a pro-EU lawmaker whose Wimbledon district in southwest London is part of a borough that voted 63 percent “Remain,” said there’s no mood to fight the outcome of the referendum.
“The vast, vast, vast majority of my colleagues accept the result, because that’s the will of the people,” he said during a panel discussion. “The determination now is to make a success of what’s going to happen.”
Home Secretary Amber Rudd, who clashed with Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson in a television debate during the referendum campaign, said she intends to play a moderating role as a “Remainer” in May’s cabinet.
“We know some things the result means, but there’s a lot that we don’t know; there’s a lot to be discussed and agreed, not just at a national level but internationally,” Rudd said at an event during the conference. “I think it’s important to have people like myself at the table helping influence as those decisions are taken.”
May also has to navigate the disconnect between the Conservatives and their traditional supporters in business and the City of London, who are concerned about the damage they may suffer as a result of Brexit. Ministers have signaled there will be no special treatment for the financial-services industry, and the Confederation of British Industry called on May to urgently provide more detail about her plans.
“Business people look on aghast as Brexit hardliners in the government gain the upper hand,” Cameron’s Liberal Democrat former deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, wrote in an editorial for the Evening Standard newspaper. “The Conservatives are now the party of 19th-century parliamentary nostalgia -- not the party of 21st-century business.”