Whatever happened to Tory unionism?

Published: 21 October 2019

When the Withdrawal Agreement negotiated by Theresa May was debated in the House of Commons many Conservative MPs argued that they could not vote for an arrangement that would treat Northern Ireland differently from Great Britain. The revised deal negotiated by Boris Johnson envisages far greater divergence within the UK, yet is far more popular among Conservatives. Jack Sheldon and Michael Kenny explain how this u-turn has come about.

Saturday’s special Commons sitting to discuss the revised Brexit deal negotiated by Boris Johnson ended inconclusively.

However, it was clear from contributions to the statement and debate on the new deal that it is far more popular among Conservative MPs than that presented to the House on three occasions by Theresa May. Almost all of those Conservatives who opposed May’s deal have indicated that they will vote in favour of Johnson’s. And with more Labour MPs also set to support the deal than at previous ‘meaningful votes’, there is now a real prospect that the necessary steps to ratify a deal could be completed in the next few weeks.

The popularity of this new agreement among Conservatives is, on the face of it, puzzling, given that the main difference from May’s version of the deal is that it envisages far greater divergence between Great Britain and Northern Ireland – and opponents of the previous deal regularly cited the more limited special arrangements for Northern Ireland under the proposed ‘backstop’ as a key reason for their opposition.

During the debates on May’s deal, Boris Johnson himself argued from the backbenches that it would ‘not be good enough to say to the people of Northern Ireland that… they must be treated differently from the rest of the UK’. Jacob Rees-Mogg, now Leader of the House, claimed previously that by treating Northern Ireland separately the deal ‘seeks to divide our country’. Many other MPs made similar arguments even more forcefully, including Sir Hugo Swire, for whom placing part of the UK in a different position from the rest was ‘an appallingly dangerous precedent’. Our analysis showed that 49 different MPs argued May’s deal was bad for the Union ahead of the first meaningful vote in January, and 47 of those went on to vote against the deal.

Another striking feature of these earlier debates was the stress that many Conservative MPs placed upon how seriously they took the views of MPs from the Democratic Unionist Party.  Many expressed similar sentiments to Daniel Kawczynski, for whom the DUP ‘are our interlocutors, and if they are telling us, as the representatives of the people of Northern Ireland, that they have genuine concerns about the backstop, it would be irresponsible for us to ignore those concerns’. But many of these same MPs are now set to do just that, and support the new deal, regardless of the DUP’s fierce opposition.

So what exactly has changed between now and then? And how can we explain what appears like a pretty dramatic about turn by a large group of MPs?

The key factor here, we would suggest, is the changed way in which the Brexit debate has been framed within the Conservative parliamentary party in the last few months. There has been a notable move away from discussion of the implications of the Withdrawal Agreement and the kind of deal which the UK should achieve, towards a much stronger emphasis on the priority of leaving, without any further delay. In Saturday’s debate strikingly few Conservative speakers engaged with the substance of Johnson’s proposals. Instead the dominant theme of speeches in the chamber – among MPs from across the different wings of the party – was the foundational importance of honouring the result of the referendum, with consideration of the specifics of the deal being secondary to this imperative. Michael Gove closed Saturday’s debate by arguing that: 

Our first duty to our constituents and our country is to keep our promises. This House said that we would honour that referendum mandate. The time ​has come. The question that all of us must answer when we return to our constituencies is: did you vote to end the deadlock? Did you vote to end the division of these days? Did you vote to bring the country together?

The substance of the deal was almost completely absent from this discourse.

That the unionist arguments made by Conservatives in previous debates have fallen away so rapidly is suggestive too of a deeper uncertainty about how the Union should now be understood among Conservative MPs at Westminster, a key finding of our own research. While support for the Union remains prominent in Conservative rhetoric, many MPs have found juggling the twin priorities of achieving Brexit and preserving the Union increasingly difficult.

At a philosophical level there is considerable uncertainty among Conservatives – and indeed many other British politicians – about how far the UK should be understood as a unitary kind of  state in which uniformity among its parts is a pre-requisite for the exercise of parliamentary sovereignty, or as a Union state in which territorial divergence is embraced and differential governing arrangements for its different parts welcomed. Many MPs, and commentators, hold less rooted and well founded convictions on these questions than their predecessors, and so switching between them, when the situation demands, is not very hard to do. In this instance, many MPs pivoted quickly, for political reasons, towards the latter perspective once it became clear that was the only way to try to secure the passage of the deal they are so keen to pass.

While there was little attempt to  justify this u-turn in thinking on Northern Ireland’s relationship to the Union in Saturday’s debate, the editor of the influential Conservative Home website has made the case that ‘just because [Northern Ireland] is British as Finchley doesn’t mean that it can or should be governed in exactly the same way as Finchley – any more than Scotland or Wales should’. The dissonance between this line of argument and the claims pervading Conservative circles when May’s deal was being debated is very marked – as the DUP will certainly have noticed.

Recent events in parliament have shone a harsh glare upon a fundamental tension between the delivery of a Brexit acceptable to its Conservative proponents and the implications of the DUP’s brand of political unionism. It was always likely that Brexit-supporting Conservative MPs were going to have to choose which of these goals to prioritise, and it should not come as a huge surprise that they have ultimately opted for delivering Brexit. What this decision means for the party’s relationship with the DUP will now become one of the most important, and unpredictable, questions in British politics.

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