Making social science accessible

26 Jun 2021

Politics and Society

June 24 2016, 5am. College Green, over the road from the Houses of Parliament. There was a certain sense of unreality as I arrived. I’d spent the night at Grays Inn Road, waiting for the call to appear on ITV. It never came, but the snacks were great. Anyway, back to College Green. Nigel Farage and his merry men were there, some clearly the worse for wear, and as the sun rose on another warm June day, we began to get a sense of the enormity of what had happened.

Glancing at Facebook, I was struck by how divided my news feed was, between school friends in Yorkshire planning street parties and neighbours in Oxford acting as if someone had died. By about 9am I remember hearing the harried political editor of one of the quality broadsheets breathlessly proclaiming that ‘the Prime Minister has just resigned, and it’s only the third story on our website’.

As that day, so the next five years. An incessant round of crises, of ‘never seen before’ moments, of widespread confusion. And a constant demand for instant analysis that fostered an emphasis on the immediate.

It’s all too easy to extrapolate from the febrile mood of those few years, to assume that we were living through a period where everything we took for granted was being challenged and changed, where politics and our system of government were undergoing what Dominic Grieve first, I think, referred to as a ‘revolution.’

I won’t pretend that it hasn’t been a thrill to watch many of the dramatic events of the last five years up close. But ‘living in the moment,’ as I think it is called, can have its downsides. Not least, it can make it hard to bring a sense of perspective about what’s going on. So many remarkable things have happened. Less a question of wood for the trees than trunks for the bark.

Of course, Brexit has changed many things, most obviously our relationship with the European Union. But the referendum has also changed the UK quite independently of any direct impacts our new relationship with the EU might have on trade, immigration, our constitution and the rest. That being said, however, there is a danger in simply identifying apparent changes that have taken place since the referendum and attributing them to Brexit.

Many outcomes attributed to Brexit were not in fact ‘caused’ by the referendum at all. Like the vote itself, a number of them were long in the making – not least a growing public disenchantment with politics. Moreover, many of the ‘truths’ we learned subsequent to that vote have turned out to be not as true as we may have imagined (see the recent work explaining why individuals who lacked wealth were less likely to support leaving the EU).

And of course, many of the changes that Brexit has wrought may in fact not be as permanent as some now seem to assume – it remains to be seen, for instance, whether social values will continue to have the same impact on voter choice as has been the case in the last two general elections.

Space constraints preclude anything more than a cursory skip over a few of the issues that strike me as most interesting. So, there’s nothing in what follows about Scotland, nor about Northern Ireland nor, indeed, about the UK-EU relationship itself (though you can, of course, consult the work of Nicola McEwen, Katy Hayward and Hussein Kassim, respectively, on these subjects).

“Many outcomes attributed to Brexit were not in fact ‘caused’ by the referendum at all. Like the vote itself, a number of them were long in the making – not least a growing public disenchantment with politics.”

And to be clear, I’m not saying any of these things don’t matter. I’m just anxious not to turn a long read into an overly long one (or to expose my ignorance).

Politics then and now

Most striking to me have been the profound changes in electoral politics that have occurred in what, by any measure, is a remarkably short space of time. The recent round of local elections underlined the nature of that shift. The Tories made their largest gains in areas that voted to leave in 2016 – a continuation of the realignment of Conservative and Labour support that was hinted at in 2017 and then reaffirmed more forcefully in 2019.

At this year’s elections, the most heavily Leave-backing areas which were last contested in 2016 saw an 11 point swing to the Conservatives, as compared to one point in the most pro-Remain wards. As Rob Ford put it, while Labour has sought to move on from Brexit, English voters don’t seem ready to follow suit.

Just six years previously, I’d been at a dinner in Rome. A colleague arrived late, fresh from giving evidence to the Italian Parliament about the ‘Renzi reform’ – an attempt to inject a bit of stability into notoriously unstable Italian politics by ensuring that any party which won over 40% of the vote would automatically receive a majority in the parliament. ‘We had to act,’ he told me with a grin, ‘or we’d end up with a nightmare of fragmented politics like in the UK’.

Being lectured on political stability by an Italian was a first. But it reflected the fact that, with the rise of the Scottish Nationalists north of the border, the strong showing by UKIP, and the recent experience of coalition government, it appeared that the British electoral system had stopped doing what it was best at – preserving the duopoly of the two big parties.

Yet fast forward to 2017, and the Conservatives garnered their largest share of the vote since Margaret Thatcher’s landslide in 1983. Meanwhile, Labour hoovered up the party’s highest share since 2001. Admittedly, the electoral system thereby contrived to find a different way of causing chaos.

Yet, combined, the two big parties secured 82.4% of the popular vote (87.3% in England) – their largest combined share since England were attempting to retain the football World Cup some 50 years ago. Although that number dropped a little by the time of the 2019 election, it still stood at a healthy (for them) 75.8%.

Even so, while the two big parties reasserted their dominance, this was no simple return to the politics of the past. The electoral coalitions assembled by the two main parties have changed fundamentally.

This can be seen in our political geography: we’ve had to get used to talking about the Labour MP for Canterbury, or the Tory MP for Mansfield (or indeed Wakefield). Strikingly, none of the seats held by the big beasts of New Labour – Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Peter Mandelson, Robin Cook and Alistair Darling – are still held by Labour.

Brexit was central to this evolution. As Maria Sobolewska and Rob Ford have painstakingly explained, the referendum was a ‘moment of awakening’. Two tribes – Leave and Remain – were mobilized in opposition to each other. Unlike at the 2015 general election, the faultline was not economic but over values and identity. These identities, furthermore, were strong and increasingly polarized.

In mid-2018, two years after the referendum vote, the British Election Study found only six per cent of people did not identify with either Leave or Remain. By way of comparison, 22% said they did not identify with any political party. Moreover, each camp attributed positive personal characteristics to their own side, and negative ones to the other – a process that political scientists call ‘affective polarisation’, but which you might also describe as a country increasingly falling out with itself.

Unsurprisingly, the division over Europe spilled over into domestic politics, as voters began to view party competition through a Brexit lens. The Conservative Party quickly tried to capitalise on this, based on the gamble that they could retain seats in prosperous middle-class areas – not least due to fears of Jeremy Corbyn – whilst capturing more pro-Brexit working class seats.

“The electoral coalitions assembled by the two main parties have changed fundamentally.”

The strategy adopted in both 2017 and 2019 was one of promising to deliver Brexit while adopting more interventionist economic policies aimed at addressing inequality. In 2017, the Conservative manifesto proposed an energy price cap, an increase in the national living wage and an industrial strategy. In 2019, Boris Johnson famously offered to ‘get Brexit done’ and to ‘level up’ the country.

In 2017, the gamble did not pay off – not least because of the disastrous campaign run by Theresa May. While the Conservative vote increased by over 10 points in what we have come to know as the Red Wall (the equivalent national figure was 5.5), Mrs May won only six pro-Brexit Labour seats. And despite the clear ambition of the Government to make the election about Brexit, traditional left-right values continued to be a major driver of voter choice.

The 2019 election was very different. Boris Johnson was a far more effective campaigner than Theresa May. And, as important, Jeremy Corbyn by then had the worst ‘net satisfaction’ ratings of any leader since Ipsos-MORI started asking in the 1970s. By early November 2019, only 16% said they trusted him most to run the economy.

And while the Conservatives had managed, by the time of the general election, to unite the Leave vote, the Remain camp was split: nearly four fifths of those in favour of Leave in December 2019 backed the Conservatives, but just 49% of those who supported Remain cast their ballot for Labour. Some 25% of voters who backed Leave in 2016 and Corbyn in 2017 switched to the Conservatives in 2019.

In short, December 2019 marked the culmination of the strategy devised in 2017. The Conservatives took 54 seats from Labour, of which 50 had voted Leave. Politics, it seemed, had shifted decisively. Six weeks later, three and a half years after deciding to leave the European Union, the UK finally did just that.

levelling up

Much ink has been spilled in working out who should carry the can – or indeed claim the credit – for a Brexit outcome supported by only a minority of the public and of those who sat in the House of Commons during that period. Yet there is another way of looking at it. Why was Boris Johnson so well placed to succeed, where others had so spectacularly failed? How did he do it? And did he break anything in the process?

Slow change a-comin’?

To understand the largely unprecedented period of turmoil we have lived through, and a Brexit realignment that is still playing out (have a look at this tremendous visualization by Paula Surridge), it is important to bring a bit of perspective to bear. This means going back to the end of the decade before last, and a period many in Westminster view in sepia tones.

Within the space of a few short years from 2007, we saw trust seeping away from key institutions such as the press (the Leveson inquiry), Parliament (the expenses scandal) and the financial and business community (the 2008 crisis and subsequent austerity policies). All this confirmed and hardened a lingering sense of disenchantment with the UK’s institutions.

“Leave triumphed in the referendum partly because a large chunk of the British electorate felt that a short-sighted political class had failed them.”

At the same time, mainstream politics was seen to offer few, if any, solutions. New Labour came to power on a strategy of appealing to the middle classes while attempting to hold on to its support in its traditional, working class heartlands.

In the process, its policy offering converged with that of the Conservatives around a broadly pro-free market, socially liberal agenda. Whereas in the 1980s over 80% of respondents thought there was a ‘great deal of difference between the parties’, since 1997 only around 25% have thought so. Mainstream politics, had come to provide voters with ‘echoes rather than choices.’

The effects were to be seen in the gradual crumbling of the Labour coalition as the party’s heartlands were afflicted by rising apathy. In 1964, the difference in turnout between working class and middle class was less than five percentage points; by 2010 it was 19. Labour voters who deserted the party from 2005 came to oscillate between the Conservatives and UKIP, but have largely remained in the right-wing column (or non-voters) ever since.

Indeed, the month before the referendum, the Cruddas report neatly anticipated the challenge the party would subsequently face in a more acute form: ‘a party of progressive, social liberals…losing connection with large parts of the voter population who are either pragmatist, or social conservatives who value family, work, fairness and their country.’

Increasingly, despite the in-built advantage provided to Labour and the Conservatives by the first-past-the-post voting system, the electorate started to look elsewhere. The rise of the SNP (prefigured as early as the 2009 European elections) was one early sign of this. The 2010 election was another, as the Liberal Democrats performed well in places that went on to vote Remain, while UKIP achieved gains in places that went on to vote Leave.

In his excellent account of the failure of the Remain campaign, Rafael Behr refers to the world of ‘Remainia,’ whose ruling class ‘were divided between the Conservatives, Labour and Lib Dems.’ Under governments of all hues, ‘debate was conducted in shades of difference within a broad consensus.’ It was partly a revolt against this consensus that saw Leave triumph on 23 June 2016, and which laid the groundwork not only for the profound shift in policy platforms that we have witnessed since 2016 but also for the popular (and on occasion populist) ‘contempt for the very idea of political authority dispensed from a liberal citadel in Westminster.’

The Leave campaign was able to mobilise voters turned off by the political consensus. Five of the ten local counting areas that recorded the biggest increase in turnout between the 2015 election and the 2016 referendum — Boston, South Holland, Mansfield, Fenland and Bolsover — were also in the top ten areas that voted most heavily for Leave. Politics had failed many people long before it became fashionable to bemoan the fact that politics was broken.

The triumph of ignorance

In politics, the verdict of the public is often a self-fulfilling prophecy. Leave triumphed in the referendum partly because a large chunk of the British electorate felt that a short-sighted political class had failed them. The political class, attempting to prove them wrong, promptly proceeded to pursue Brexit blindfolded.

In all this Theresa May is clearly a leading, if unwitting, culprit. It was she, after all, who felt the need to underline her pro-Brexit credentials and so delivered that fateful first speech to the Conservative Party conference in October 2016 stating her intention to leave the Single Market, thereby tying her hands in the negotiations to come.

She also decided on the creation of the Department for Exiting the European Union – subsequently generally viewed as a mistake – and, even more bafflingly, a Department for International Trade: political gestures not only to reassure Brexiters, but also to provide homes for a couple of them in Government.

No less striking was the ignorance that underlay these key decisions. Philip Hammond recalls that the Prime Minister was shocked by the reaction of the financial markets to her 2016 conference speech. Her team had failed to recognize the economic implications of her insistence that the UK would leave the Single Market.

And the former Chancellor maintains that no thought went into the implications of the creation of the Department of International Trade for UK membership of the Customs Union – though most observers drew the logical conclusion that the former implied exit from the latter.

In her second speech at that same conference, the Prime Minister was explicit in saying the UK would have an independent trade policy. Shortly afterwards, she met with the UK’s Ambassador to the EU, Ivan Rogers. ‘You’ve made a decision’ the mandarin told her, ‘This gives me clarity. I can work with this. We’re leaving the Customs Union.’

The Prime Minister’s response? ‘I have agreed to no such thing.’ The idea of rhetoric without consequences, policy bereft of understanding of key terms and realistic trade-offs had taken hold. And, if you are not prepared to take consequences for your own actions, the natural solution is to blame someone else.

As early as April 2017, Theresa May was accusing the opposition of jeopardizing Brexit preparations and weakening the Government’s negotiating position. As with Parliament, so too with the judges. The High Court decision in the first Miller case in 2017 was significant not only on its own terms, but for the response it elicited.

The judges were labelled ‘Enemies of the People’ by the Daily Mail, while the Daily Telegraph went with ‘[t]he day democracy died’. Not to be outdone, Business Secretary Sajid Javid said that the ruling ‘was an attempt to frustrate the will of the British people and it is unacceptable’.

Criticisms of civil servants as Remainers intent on frustrating Brexit were commonplace. Olly Robbins was, during his tenure as Chief Brexit negotiator, a particular target of such ire. Former Trade Secretary Liam Fox used a 2020 intervention at the Institute for Government to accuse the civil service of ‘a deep antipathy to the whole concept of disengaging with the European Union’.

Moreover, politics meant the civil service was in no position to provide the kind of expert guidance that was required. A succession of divided cabinets riven by bitter disputes were not exactly in a position to provide the kind of clear direction officials needed. And the Government made this problem still worse by excluding European experts from leading Brexit jobs – the very fact of their experience of working with the EU rendering them suspect in the eyes of Brexiters.

“Episodes such as the prorogation of Parliament, or the Prime Minister’s constant struggles with the legislature during the autumn of 2019, were not distractions. On the contrary, they were central to his appeal.”

Writing back in 2016, Catherine Barnard pointed out that the ‘day-to-day practical reality of voting to leave the EU has not received the attention it has deserved. For constitutional lawyers, Brexit would raise some difficult legal questions. For practitioners, there would be considerable uncertainty. And for civil servants? Well they would probably need to cancel all holiday for at least the next 10 years’.

Yet the five subsequent years also served to underline the degree to which officials as well as politicians had underestimated the impact of EU membership. This had affected all aspects of national life – not least key elements of the UK’s constitutional settlement. It speaks volumes that so few people on the UK side – including the DUP when negotiating their confidence and supply arrangement with Theresa May in the summer of 2017 – recognized how central the issue of Northern Ireland would become.

Backbench MPs clearly do not have detailed information about the whole range of issues over which they are expected to cast votes. The whip system exists to provide guidance on the party line. As party loyalties were fractured during the lengthy Brexit process, however, individual MPs increasingly came to make their own decisions about where they stood.

This, clearly, meant that MPs needed to educate themselves, and fast. Yet nothing could have prepared Catherine Barnard, Sam Lowe (of the Centre for European Reform) and me for a meeting with a large group of MPs in the House of Commons on 2 April 2019. We’d been invited to explain the various choices confronting them in the indicative votes later that same day. These votes, remember, came in the wake of two meaningful votes and nearly three years of parliamentary discussion and debate.

Yet we still had to field enquiries about whether Customs Union membership entailed an acceptance of freedom of movement. As Jill Rutter put it, 45 years of EU membership meant ‘not only that the impact of the EU was both deep and wide, but also that it was somewhat taken for granted and hence poorly understood.’

By 20 March 2019, Theresa May was taking to our TV screens to argue that the public had had enough of ‘political games and the arcane political rows’ and to blame MPs for the delay to Brexit. The blame game had begun. The stage was being set for a politician who would turn this rhetoric into action.

The populist turn proper

Enter Boris Johnson, and the beginning of the general election campaign the day he took office in July 2019. Episodes such as the prorogation of Parliament, or the Prime Minister’s constant struggles with the legislature during the autumn of 2019, were not distractions. On the contrary, they were central to his appeal.

June 24 2016

As Paul Stephenson, former Director of Communications for Vote Leave and an adviser to the Conservatives during the 2019 election campaign put it, ‘defeat after defeat in the Commons made the PM stronger in the country.’ Far from voters being uninterested in what was happening in the House of Commons, they were paying attention. And they were enraged.

The Hansard Society’s sixteenth Audit of Political Engagement, published in 2019, found that a mere 25% of the public had confidence in MPs’ handling of Brexit. Opinions of the UK system of governing were at their lowest point in the history of the series (worse even than in the immediate aftermath of the MPs’ expenses scandal).

Consequently, 42% thought many problems could be addressed more effectively if the Government didn’t have to worry so much about votes in Parliament. Some 54% felt Britain needed ‘a strong leader who is willing to break the rules.’

Mr. Johnson’s elevation to the post of Prime Minister appeared to give them what they wanted. The new administration immediately challenged legal constraints on executive action. The Government prorogued Parliament in September 2019, a decision the Supreme Court described as ‘an act of executive fiat’.

A year later, the Northern Ireland Secretary admitted in Parliament that the Government’s proposed Internal Market Bill would break international law in a ‘specific and limited way.’ As I write, the Government is briefing that the Northern Ireland Protocol to which Boris Johnson signed up and proclaimed to be a great deal in 2019 is ‘dead in the water’.

“While the civil service has seen significant disruption, recent senior appointments have hardly smacked of fundamental change and, with Cummings gone, there has been little sign of rain, hard or otherwise.”

More subtly (just) yet equally importantly, the Government seemed intent on removing a number of other checks on executive freedom of manoeuvre. Dominic Cummings promised a ‘hard rain’ on the civil service, and indeed a long list of senior officials departed their posts in 2020, including the Prime Minister’s Independent Adviser on the Ministerial Code and the Government’s top lawyer. The Commissioner for Public Appointments warned of a growing trend of political cronyism, as ministers sought to pack appointment panels with political allies and the number of unregulated appointments grew.

Meanwhile, Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden, in a September 2020 letter to museums and other cultural institutions on the issue of statues and ‘other similar objects’, defied both logic and traditional understandings of the nature of ‘arm’s length’ bodies with his assertion that: ‘I would expect Arm’s Length Bodies’ approach to issues of contested heritage to be consistent with the Government’s position…It is imperative that you continue to act impartially’.

There are good reasons for concern about the health of the UK’s democratic system. Much of its web of arcane political institutions relies on the ‘good chap’ theory of government. It requires, as the historian Peter Hennessy puts it, ‘a sense of restraint all round to make it work’. Those institutions begin to look distinctly fragile in the presence of a Prime Minister apparently lacking such a sense.

But it’s worth stressing that the secret of Boris Johnson’s success lay not merely in his stubborn willingness to behave in a way that many people – his own MPs, Supreme Court judges, even the Palace – simply did not think befitted a ‘good chap’. It was that his immediate predecessors had trialed constitutional irresponsibility and helped normalise it.

June 24 2016

David Cameron happily weaponised English grievance in the 2015 general election, playing on fears of an SNP presence in a future UK Government, (while forgetting, as Richard Wyn Jones and Ailsa Henderson point out, the lessons of that campaign during the referendum of 2016).

Cameron too road-tested the ‘undeliverable promise’ school of politics – his being to reduce inward migration to the tens of thousands while the UK remained in the EU and therefore bound to accept freedom of movement. He also, of course, called a referendum on EU membership as a tool of party management.

Subsequently, Theresa May happily obfuscated, governed by tautology, refused to accept the existence of trade-offs, insisted that ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ and portrayed Parliament as defying the will of ‘the people’. Boris Johnson, frankly, built more successfully on their examples, while at least giving the impression that he actually believed his own rhetoric.

Yet a caveat is needed. Despite all the obvious warning signs, it is not clear that the Government intends to act on its more ambitious rhetoric. While the civil service has seen significant disruption, recent senior appointments have hardly smacked of fundamental change and, with Cummings gone, there has been little sign of rain, hard or otherwise.

The Government rowed back from pushing the Internal Market Bill through Parliament, abandoning the inflammatory lawbreaking aspects in December 2020 and arguing they were merely a ploy to extract concessions from the EU (though the sections that the devolved governments see as trampling on their powers to do things differently were of course retained). When it comes to the Protocol, it remains to be seen whether the current hard-line rhetoric is a matter of genuine bad faith or brinkmanship.

Perhaps the most worrying aspect of the apparent challenges to the UK system is not the Prime Minister’s behaviour. Rather, it is the evidence – in the size of the Prime Minister’s majority, in his domestic political strength, and in the polling– that public opinion is happy to accept the kinds of tactics he has deployed.

True, the recent Chesham and Amersham by-election has raised some doubts about whether traditional Tory voters are prepared to put up with Johnson’s approach. But that genie is now out of the bottle, and it is hard to envisage it being put back.

Brexit did little for public faith in the political system, and increasing impatience has fostered an appetite for decisive leadership. The actions of the Government clearly irritate constitutional experts. Yet the bald electoral reality, and the success of Johnson’s message in the December 2019 general election, means that they should perhaps be more worried about another possibility: that the ‘revolution’ which Dominic Grieve identified, may only be half way complete, and the public – or at least a majority of them – might enjoy it.

Peering forward

Sitting there on College Green, eating stolen Hobnobs (sorry, ITV), I could not have second-guessed much, if any, of what has happened in the half-decade since. If there is one lesson to draw from a look back over that period, it is surely that attempting to predict how things might develop in the future is a mug’s game. I, however, have a long and proud history of being a mug.

So a few final warnings.

First, let’s not assume that two party dominance is here to stay. UK politics is characterised by extremely high levels of volatility – more than four in ten of those who voted in both 2010 and 2015 switched party. Thus, while in 2017 and 2019 the two large parties performed very well, attachments are not deep seated, and neither is their electoral dominance assured. Between 2017 and 2019 alone, around one quarter of all voters switched their votes. So expect the unexpected (again, think Chesham and Amersham).

In policy terms, two things stand out. First, and quite simply, how little actual governing has been done since 2016. Politics has been dominated by Brexit and then by Covid-19. The day-to-day business of government has very much taken a back seat which means, inter alia, that the kinds of ambitious pledges that ultimately led to the Conservative victory in 2019 have not been addressed, still less met.

An Institute for Government report on the delivery of Conservative manifesto pledges illustrated the scale of the work yet to be done, not least in key areas like health and social care and levelling up. On the latter, the Government has provided no clear definition of what it wants to achieve, let alone metrics as to how to measure success.

“In policy terms, two things stand out. First, and quite simply, how little actual governing has been done since 2016. Politics has been dominated by Brexit and then by Covid-19.”

To date at least, rhetoric has triumphed over reality. Boris Johnson began his election campaign the day he took office. It is not clear that he has ever stopped campaigning and started governing.

Second, and particularly in the light of the pandemic and lockdown, that ‘Overton window’ much beloved of think tankers (i.e. the spectrum of what seem acceptable ideas) has opened considerably since the days of ideological convergence between New Labour and David Cameron’s Conservatives.

Think back to when Ed Miliband proposed an energy price cap and was greeted with a Daily Mail headline proclaiming that ‘Red Ed revives 70s socialism’. Two years on, and the same policy unveiled by Theresa May led the same paper to applaud a ‘Crackdown on Energy rips offs.’ The limits of the possible, it seems, have changed.

Finally, as we come out of lockdown and confront the full scale of its economic impact, it is easy to imagine economic values again coming to play a decisive role in shaping voter choice, not least as constraints on public spending come to imply difficult choices and trade-offs.

This could spell problems for a Conservative coalition that has successfully united Leave voters. Brexit was driven more by sociocultural than socioeconomic factors, meaning support for Brexit was stratified not by class but status. Broad consensus over Brexit and other ‘identity’ issues, in other words, is not mirrored when it comes to attitudes towards economic policy.

Divisions are apparent even within the parliamentary Conservative party in the form of two vastly different conceptions of the UK’s economic future. Conservative MPs representing ‘Red Wall’ constituencies often embrace a big state approach to economic policy that is barely recognizably ‘Conservative’ as we have come to know the term.

In contrast, a new grouping of Conservative MPs – the Free Market Forum – is committed to lobbying for a smaller state and ensuring that the party does not ‘fall into a trap of thinking we can do socialism better than the socialists’.

According to Steve Baker, who entered the public consciousness as a warhorse of the Brexit era, the ‘big future battle is inevitably going to be about spending and taxation (and) the full spectrum of legitimate political discourse is in the Conservative Party. In the midst of all this, the Tory Party is in danger of being torn in two.’ Brexit, it turns out, means far more than simply Brexit.

Whether the Conservative Party is willing or able to deliver on the radical economic change implicit in that mandate from five years ago remains to be seen. Ultimately, those voters that enjoy seeing a disruptive Government challenge aspects of an ‘establishment’ they believe has failed them, will nevertheless expect delivery on the ambitious ‘levelling up’ agenda that the Government has laid out.

Instead of the ‘culture wars’ that many now assume will dominate British politics, we could see emerging from Covid-19 a demand for real and radical economic change.

The next phase of that Brexit revolution could, once again, surprise us.

By Anand Menon, director of UK in a Changing Europe. 


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