Conservative MPs are becoming more, not less, Eurosceptic

The Evening Standard reports that business leaders see a large Conservative majority in the forthcoming election as a good way to “soften” Brexit. One can see why this sounds plausible. Unfortunately, it’s complete twaddle.

            With all due respect, business leaders are not exactly renowned for their political nous. Business leaders confidently predicted that “Remain” would win the EU referendum. Business leaders confidently predicted that Trump would crash and burn in a landslide electoral defeat. Business and politics are very different disciplines, with very different skill sets. History is full of politicians imagining that they will become geniuses at business, only to fail spectacularly (remember Reggie Maudling?); and of businessmen being brought into political office to give some much-needed business discipline to the woolly world of politics, only to find themselves left as fish out of water (a long list from Eric Geddes to Digby Jones).

            But one can see why the Conservative Party has gone into overdrive to assure business leaders that a Conservative landslide might mean “softer” Brexit. The Conservative Party has not been lacking in donations over the last two years of this Parliament. But it has had nothing like the £106 million in declared donations made in 2011-15, ahead of the last election. Accordingly, the Conservatives do not seem to have the large “war chest” available to them ahead of the last election; and funding this snap election will presumably depend on persuading a series of donors – mostly drawn from business leaders – to invest in the party’s machinery. Yet as the EU referendum campaign made very clear, Britain’s business leaders remain overwhelmingly pro-Remain – with the exception of those working in hedge funds or other forms of speculation that thrive on instability and fluctuation. So there is an all too obvious motive for the government to put some form of spin on events, as to why a large majority for a party embracing Brexit, which asks for a mandate to aggressively pursue Brexit, might not actually sound as harmful to the very business leaders who most fear Brexit.

            So how true is this? Conservative Party selection contests would suggest it’s something of a fairy tale. Byron Criddle’s landmark work on candidates and selection contests offers some clues on the Conservative Party’s direction of travel. Over the last 20-30 years, Conservative Associations have become increasingly Eurosceptic, with the result that any serious Conservative aspirant to a winnable seat usually needs to be a tub-thumpingly confident Brexiteer – or at least, to send out the right “dog whistles” to their selection meeting. It’s one of the reasons why several Conservative MPs like Alan Mak found themselves at odds with members of their associations last year, publicly coming out for Remain whilst party activists complained of having been distinctly assured of a Leave pledge at a selection meeting only a year earlier.

            Keen observers of the Conservative backbenches have watched each parliamentary intake since 1992 become steadily more Eurosceptic, with the result that some members of the Class of 2010 and Class of 2015 hold views on Europe that would have had them expelled from the party only a decade earlier. This pattern of increasing Euroscepticism in Tory candidate selections shows no sign of abating.

            Indeed, the European issue among Conservative MPs is very much a generational divide, with many of the most ardent pro-Europeans like Sir Nicholas Soames and Ken Clarke being some of the party’s oldest and longest-standing MPs. It is no coincidence that the one Conservative MP to have voted against triggering Article 50 is now the Father of the House

            Of course, it is possible that with the Conservative Party’s central HQ taking sweeping powers to adopt last-minute candidates for this snap election, that they will somehow buck the trend of the last three decades, and install a run of pro-European candidates in previously-unwinnable seats, and will coast to victory, providing the Commons with a more rational and balanced approach, to replace the rabidly ideological “Leave at all costs” tendencies of the party’s right wing.  But I wouldn’t bet the bank on that. It sounds more likely that the government is hoping the political gullibility of business leaders will make them blithely accept that voting for what is increasingly looking like a hard Brexit will somehow magically deliver a soft Brexit. There is simply no logic to this – it flies in the face of all the available evidence from the last three decades.