A few days after the momentous 2016 vote to leave the EU I found myself in a pub having a pint with a government minister.  Never mind he said, ’We’ll get a deal, stay inside the single market and things will be fine’.  At that point I realised we were in deep trouble.  This minister of the crown had profoundly misunderstood what was going on.  The public hadn’t voted for for continuity – they wanted change.

Like every other major party in Britain, the Tory party didn’t want Brexit.  After the initial shock of losing a referendum it expected to win it became clear that our governing party had no clear idea of what to do with the mandate secured.  The party itself was divided.  Broadly, battlelines was drawn between, first, those like the new Prime Minister Theresa May who saw the 2016 vote as a mistake and who craved a ‘high alignment’ deal with the EU and, secondly, those like Jacob Rees-Mogg who desired a ‘Global Britain’ based on deregulation and unfettered free trade. 

Meanwhile, outside the Tory party – and almost unrepresented within its ranks in 2016 – was a third view popular among many Brexit voters sometimes referred to as the ‘Lexit’ vision.  This sought a more economically nationalist and paternatistic approach.  It wanted to call time on mass immigration and freedom of movement which had supressed UK wages and inhibited skills training and it questioned 30 years of trade policy which had contributed to the gutting of British manufacturing.  Put crudely, it wanted less globalism and more localism.  This view was popular among ‘Red Wall’ voters who cleared the Brexit deadlock by handing Boris Johnson a massive mandate in the 2019 general election.  Going forward, the problem for Johnson was that he couldn’t deliver on either of the two most important questions – trade and immigration.

First, immigration.  The Tories 2019 general election manifesto contained the claim: ‘our new system gives us real control over who is coming in’.  The reality has been an open border shambles in the Channel and gross immigration to June 2022 of over one million people. The question of who decides who enters and remains in the UK has been ceded from our democratically elected government to foreign criminal gangs.  And any hopes Brexit voters may have had of lower immigration to the UK have been totally dashed.  In truth, those who govern us are as wedded as ever to the drug of mass migration as a means of driving population growth and plugging skills and labour gaps.  The broader question of British cultural sovereignty is barely even considered by our ruling class.  And since Labour seem even keener on mass immigration than the Tories and it seems that the hopes of millions of Brexit voters for moderate migration and the prioritisation of domestic skills training will depend on another political revolution – this time in favour of challenger political parties such as the SDP and Reform UK.

Secondly, trade.  The UK has a huge trade problem.  Each year we buy vastly more than we sell and, consequently, we accumulate debt.  And yet our persistent negative balance of trade is rarely discussed in political discourse and most of our elected representatives seem ignorant of the basic economics of international trade (imports can be paid for in three ways – by exporting goods, by selling assets we already have or buy issuing debt).  Running multi £billion trade deficits – which we consistently did with the EU, our most problematic trade partner – has indeed filled our homes with imported goods but it has also beggared the country.  

The Tories only response to this trade problem was to pour petrol on the fire by suggesting an even harsher dose of unilateral free trade, namely ‘Singapore-on-Thames’.  Those suggesting this not only fundamentally misunderstand Singapore – whose social housing, public transport and industrial policies are admirable – they failed to grasp tide of de-globalisation the world is currently entering.  As the pandemic showed, successful states will increasingly prioritise domestic production and national resilience in food and energy over utopian dreams of global free trade.  China continues to successsfully pursue state capitalist mercantailism and Joe Biden’s recent Inflation Reduction Act is $370bn of barely concealed pro-industrial US protectionism.  As the world turns away from free trade purism the Tories have nothing to offer.  Liz Truss’ ill-fated Japan trade deal was modelled to substantially increase our bilateral trade deficit with Japan.  A few more deals of this type and the road to ruin will be certain.

The coalition convened by Johnson and Vote Leave was a very broad church.  Yes, both free traders and ‘Lexiteers’ wanted to leave the EU but they disagreed profoundly on their preferred future vision.  Johnson inherited the ‘Red Wall’ seats by accident but his party was simply unable to pivot in the direction sought by these patriotic ex-Labour voters.  A Tory party composed, as it is, of free trade knights of the shires makes an imcompatible partner to ‘red wallers’ with protectionist instincts wanting reindustrialisation and re-shoring.

The dirty little secret of the Vote Leave coalition was that the views inside the Brexit voting bloc were irreconcilable. Neither the politically gifted Johnson nor the managerial Sunak can over come this findamental problem – which is why the necessary political realignment has stumbled and their post-Brexit vision continues to fail.

William Clouston is the leader of the Social Democratic Party (SDP).

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