Good evening. Chancellor Philip Hammond will speak tonight at the Confederation of British Industry. He will press business leaders to show their loyalty to the UK by investing here and hiring British citizens. But he will also attempt to soothe and assure them that he will listen to their fears about Brexit.
This closed speech should be seen in context of Mr Hammond’s longstanding dovishness on this issue. He has alienated many in the cabinet by repeatedly arguing for protecting jobs and the economy over cutting immigration, but the dismal election result has only strengthened his hand. He has similarly been the sticking point in the row over lifting the public sector pay cap, which the Government today ruled out until 2018.
His soft approach is not shared by Theresa May. She is under pressure to set out, at the party conference in October, a timetable for her departure. The expectation is that she will stay until June 2019 to make sure Brussels know they will be dealing with her until the curtain. On Sunday the Telegraph reported that she is plotting to dramatically storm out of Brexit talks over the EU’s “divorce bill” in order to show she is “hard-nosed” and “hard-headed”. Such a set-piece would play well with the British press but less well with Michel Barnier, and its rumour suggests that she believes a Tory leader will always benefit domestically from getting into a fight with Europe. Critics will say she is prioritising domestic headlines over foreign relationships, but given the results of David Cameron’s approach, which tended in the opposite direction, I can understand her thinking.
Meanwhile, Labour is experiencing its own political strife. Chuka Umunna’s rebellion last Thursday over membership of the Single Market has left Corbynites furious, and now party chairman Ian Lavery has hinted at purging moderate MPs. The rebels, many of them from Remain-voting constituencies, believe that Labour must rally behind the Single Market to keep its coalition together.
On the surface, this makes sense. The parties’ fortunes in the recent general election are strongly correlated with the vote for Brexit. Labour captured 54 per cent of Remainers to the Conservatives’ 24 per cent, while the Tories won 65 per cent of Leavers to Labour’s 24 per cent. The Conservatives did best in areas where both the 2015 Labour vote and the 2016 Leave vote were high, suggesting Labour’s new coalition is intensely Remain-y. A full 43 per cent of Labour voters said they would like to stop Brexit happening if possible.
But those numbers are deceptive. For Conservatives, believing that Theresa May could “do a better job of negotiating the UK’s exit” was the single biggest reason to vote for their party (according to surveys by Lord Ashcroft). Yet for Labour – and indeed for the country as a whole – it didn’t even make the top three. And while 48 per cent of Tory voters brought up Brexit without being prompted as a reason for their decision, only 8 per cent of Labour voters did the same – behind spending cuts (11 per cent) and the NHS (33 per cent) and only barely beating poverty (7 per cent). What really motivated Labour voters was that they “trusted [its] motives”, “preferred [its] promises”, and believed it would run the economy better.
That suggests Labour’s voters are not actually fanatical Remainers, and are not going to be crestfallen when they discover that Jeremy Corbyn is a Brexiteer at heart (if indeed he is). Rather, they backed him because they believed in his values (though a cynic or a victim of IRA terror might suggest they cannot have known much about them) and agreed with his policies on welfare, public services, and other domestic issues. Their apparent enthusiasm for Remain is merely a proxy for their liberal, Leftist values.
If so, Labour moderates grandstanding over the Single Market are on a hiding to nothing. To Labour voters buoyed by Corbyn’s surprising success it is they and not he who will look like the wreckers. But perhaps the strife within the party is not really about Brexit. Perhaps it is, like the vote for Labour itself, about domestic politics and values. As Tom Harris writes, it is only the latest part of a very long battle between two sides who cannot coexist.
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