It was supposed to finally end the Tory psychodrama. After decades of infighting – almost half a century in fact – David Cameron was going to put the Europe issue to bed once and for all with an in-out referendum. Then Theresa May picked up the pieces and promised that, by thrashing Jeremy Corbyn at the polls, she would make the EU quiver and unite her party behind her. Boris Johnson knew the answer was to throw out all the rebels, and when that wasn’t enough, rolled the dice again on a Brexit-election.
When Johnson secured his deal, passed it through Parliament, and 11pm on 31 January 2020 passed with a film of rain and occasional fireworks, that seemed to be that. With COVID claiming all our political and media bandwidth, the idea that backbench Tories wanted to relitigate the Brexit years seemed fanciful, but the Government’s decision to reopen the issue also reopened those wounds of the past.
The Government may have compromised with the Sir Bob Neill-led rebels, and will likely pass the Internal Market Bill through the Commons without too much difficulty (although the Lords might be more slippery). But will the Conservative Party ever be over the issue of Europe? If they are not to be fully driven out of London and other metropolitan areas, there will have to be space for the Bob Neills and Damian Greens of the country, and yet the big tent nature of the Conservative Party is exactly where these divisions emerge.
The Government has a safe, perhaps insurmountable, majority in the Commons. But future Tory governments might not be so large, especially if it enacts periodic Johnson-like purges to retain ideological purity. Although this chapter in the Brexit saga is (presumably) ending with the transition period in January 2021, our relationship with the EU will continue. It is almost a banality to say that the world is shrinking, but from trade to climate change, international terrorism to immigration, a post-Brexit Britain will have a constantly evolving partnership with Europe as it will with all other international partners. That was always the cleavage in Brexit: did you want an ‘independent’ Global Britain with these relationships on its own terms, or were you voting for a Britain with a strong voice in an internationally significant body like the EU? Regardless, the 31 January 2020 was not the end of the Tory travails over Europe – at most it was the end of a chapter. Whether the next flare up is over Northern Ireland, a future independent Scotland joining the EU on England’s border, or data sharing across borders, Brexit Britain cannot escape from Europe. The next Conservative leader after Johnson will find out exactly what that means for their party.