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Neale Richmond: Brexit was no one hit wonder - the Tory party fostered this toxic sentiment over many years

Neale Richmond says the UK has become a slave to insular thinking and it has led them to Brexit and the current mess it has caused.

Neale Richmond

AS THE INTERNAL Market Bill causes more rancour in Brexit talks, it is no surprise to see that focus of attention for many in the UK has rendered down to the internal dynamics of the British Conservative Party.

The party that championed accession to the EEC in 1973 when the Labour Party opposed such a move has struggled with the European project ever since the days of Margaret Thatcher.

The matter has bedevilled every Tory leader since Margaret Thatcher from all sides of the debate while an inability to steady the horses on this led to the calling of the Brexit Referendum in the first place.

The lady turned

Thatcher was initially a keen enthusiast for the EEC, her campaigning in the 1975 Referendum on remaining in the Single Market was crucial to ensuring victory. Her infamous showdown with Jacques Delors at Brussels set up a schism in the Tory Party’s approach to Europe that continues to this very day.

It was Black Wednesday and the departure from the Exchange Rate Mechanism that completely undermined John Major’s strength as leader leading to bruising battles to pass the Maastricht Treaty with growing levels of rancour on his backbenches.

This culminated in Major putting his leadership on the line against John Redwood whose brand of Eurosceptism continues to pour forth from the very back of the green benches in Westminster.

Parallel to this saw the birth of several Eurosceptic parties such as the Anti Federalist League, James Goldsmith’s Referendum Party and the infamous UK Independence Party or UKIP.

The road to Brexit

The demise of Major and the Labour landslide victory in 1997 saw the Conservative Party go through three leaders before settling with David Cameron in 2005. The Conservative leaders in the interim period all battled internally and arguably pointlessly with the question of Europe.

William Hague was regarded as being slightly more Eurosceptic than Major who was and remains a pro-European while both Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard were full throated Eurosceptics.

Former Chancellor of the Exchequer, Ken Clarke, failed to be elected leader on numerous occasions for his reluctance to downplay his enthusiasm for the European project.

Through this period UKIP began to make electoral inroads winning seats in the European Parliament that gave Nigel Farage a growing profile and resources to set himself up as the Eurosceptic voice who was a viable alternative for many Conservative voters.

UKIP consistently performed well in European elections, often beating the Tories, although failing to win seats in the House of Commons.

Cameron’s false move

When he was elected leader, David Cameron attempted to lance the European boil by taking the Conservatives out of the EPP-ED Group in the European Parliament, this robbed the Conservatives of huge influence as members of the biggest bloc but was a psychological shift.

Unfortunately, this did little to halt the progress and calm the Eurosceptic tendencies of elements of the Conservative Party especially when Cameron led the Conservatives into Government with the strongly pro-European Liberal Democrats in 2010.

Following another European election defeat to UKIP, Cameron promised ahead of the 2015 General Election that he would hold a straight in or out Referendum on EU membership.

Cameron won that election and we know what happened in a Referendum campaign that split the Conservative Party and indeed the entire UK.

Roll onto the leadership of Theresa May and the negotiations of the UK’s departure from the UK and the various factions of the Conservative Party clashed again over the nature of what Brexit should look like: soft, hard or compromised.

A very British Boris and his Brexit

The farcical scenes of indicative votes, leadership heaves and resignations on all sides led to May’s departure and the election of Boris Johnson as Prime Minister.

The champion of the Eurosceptic wing and someone who had voted Leave, Johnson negotiated a Withdrawal Agreement with the EU identical to one that May had failed to get through her party a year previous.

Johnson purged many of the pro Europeans out of the party including the likes of Clarke and Nicholas Soames, the Grandson of Winston Churchill before campaigning on a promise to “get Brexit done”.

Roll on less than a year from that General Election campaign and the subsequent ratification of the Withdrawal Agreement supported by every Conservative MP currently in the House of Commons and Johnson’s Government is threatening to renege on this Agreement and breach International law.

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The reaction has been stark. Some Eurosceptics, like the aforementioned Redwood and Duncan Smith, say the moves do not go far enough while arch Brexiteers like Howard and Norman Lamont say the moves contained within the Internal Market Bill go too far and jeopardise the UK’s global standing when it comes to the rule of law.

Compromise amendments have been submitted and reports abound of heavy whipping. Johnson has the majority to get this through the House of Commons with limited opposition but he will struggle to get it through the House of Lords. All the while the EU and many international partners watch on aghast.

This comes to the crux of the problem. For decades the Conservative party have been totally divided on the EU and their focus has been solely on the internals of both the party and matters in Westminster. However, the reality is that Brexit is a matter between both the EU and the UK.

The British Government needs to realise that compromise amendments and sanctions internally mean little, they should really be focussing on talks with the EU.

Michel Barnier and his team wait patiently for the Conservative Party to get over their latest European breakdown.

Neale Richmond is a Fine Gael TD for Dublin Rathdown and is former Seanad spokesperson on EU affairs for the party.

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