It’s been over two years since the country voted to leave the European Union, but Brexit continues to hang over British politics like an all-encompassing dark, brooding cloud, discombobulating established relationships and upturning traditional verities wherever we look.
Social class no longer largely determines how you vote in the UK. The latest polls suggest the Tories now enjoy a lead among working-class voters. They’ve always won a chunk of working class votes – Disraeli called them his “Angels in Marble” – but never a majority.
As for Labour, even under its most left-wing leader ever, it now garners considerable support among the professional middle classes, especially in the major metropolitan conurbations.
The reason for this psephological seachange is Brexit. If you voted Leave, you are now more likely to vote Tory; if Remain, Labour.
Brexit is now the dividing line within Labour and the Conservatives. It splits the cabinet and shadow cabinet, backbenchers of both parties and their voters in the country. The Tory divisions are more obvious to see because they are the governing party and make big news. But Jeremy Corbyn has managed to lose 103 frontbenchers, often through Brexit-related resignations, which doesn’t quite have the impact of Boris Johnson or David Davis walkouts, but must be something of a record nevertheless.
Brexit has also induced something of rigor mortis on both frontbenches. For nearly all of the past parliamentary year, cabinet ministers and leading Labour spokespeople have been unable to answer the simplest questions on our post-Brexit state when it comes to the customs union, the Irish border, immigration policy and the single market. Only recently, with the Article 50 deadline looming, has some clarity emerged – and not always. I believe this widespread prevarication has added to voter disillusion.
Just as important, nearly all non-Brexit matters have been swept into a Brexit-induced Bermuda Triangle. This is understandable. But it has added to the gulf between parliament and the people.
The impact of Brexit on the parliamentary process has been generally unpredictable and often amusing. Left-wing Remainers now speak of the House of Lords as a bastion of democracy. Right-wing Leavers sound increasingly like peasants with pitchforks, determined to bring the whole edifice of the upper house tumbling down.
Jeremy Corbyn, who’s spent his political career railing against the iniquities of the market economy, now poses as the champion of business (up to a point). Brexiteer Tories regularly mutter anti-business sentiments in unprintable language.
Overarching all this turmoil and uncertainty, as I explained in The Parliamentary Review last year, is the resurgence of the two-party system in England, another consequence of Brexit. At the 2017 general election, the Leaver Right collapsed into the Tories and the Remainer Left flocked to Mr Corbyn’s Labour party. It is beyond strange that the two main parties should be doing so well when many regard them as weaker, less talented and more divided than they’ve been in living memory. But they got easily over 80 per cent of the English vote between them in 2017 and all polls since suggest that is the new status quo.
The fundamental parliamentary fact in this post-referendum era is that there is no majority for what hardliners on either side of the Brexit divide would like. So, when it comes to determining the eventual shape of Brexit, parliament is very much in the driving seat, as the government has found out the hard way. The problem is it’s not sure what parliament wants that shape to be.
Business might despair at what it sees as an increasingly dysfunctional political system. But it should take comfort from the fact that economics and politics are, for the moment, going their separate ways. No matter how much you might think politicians are mucking it up, the economy in general and business in particular continue to defy them.
I have thought for sometime that business and the economy are in much better shape than established opinion would have it. There were signs in the early summer of 2018 that this was indeed the case. But, by the time you read this, you’ll have a much better idea if I’m right. Keep your fingers crossed – not for my sake, but for the country’s!