Conservative Zugzwang Redux

Simon Wren-Lewis:

After the 2017 General Election, I wrote a post about how, whatever the Conservatives did next, they would make their position worse (a situation called ‘zugzwang’ in chess). In that post, by taking a piece of received wisdom as given, I underestimated the hole they were in. The mistake I made was to assume that by 2021 the Brexit issue will have been put to bed and a new Conservative leader would be elected in time to fight the next election.
The error was to underestimate the determination of the Brexiters to keep the issue alive. If a deal is made with the EU and parliament accepts that deal (both big ifs) it will be on terms which Brexiters find more intolerable than being in the EU. We will be in the customs union and at least part of the single market: pay, obey but no say. The reasons that the Brexiters will keep complaining about that kind of Brexit is partly because they cannot stop themselves, but mainly because they need to keep the issue alive to obtain the prize of the Tory leadership. In this they will be helped by the return of UKIP talking of the Brexit betrayal. The received wisdom after the 2016 vote that the Brexit vote would end this fatal division among the right of UK politics was another mistake.
That leads to the ultimate zugzwang: Remain Tory MPs cannot risk May departing from the scene, because if she does the solid Leave majority among members will vote in a Brexiter. The Conservative zugzwang is even worse than I thought in that earlier post. If MPs vote through an EU deal and we enter transition there is a good chance Theresa May will fight the next General Election. What seemed unthinkable after 2017 now seems most likely. We know from 2017 and the immediate aftermath of the Grenfell tragedy that May is the type of leader that makes the most of Corbyn’s qualities.
It is worse than that. The issue of ‘Brexit betrayal’ will remain alive until 2022. UKIP will start taking votes from Conservatives more than they take votes from Labour, because Leavers are more likely to be Conservatives. That does not mean Labour are bound to win in 2022. The Conservatives will try their best to convince voters that Labour under Corbyn will tear the UK’s economy and foreign policy apart even more than the Tories have done. But an actual or impending end to transition will not be sold by the Conservatives as a triumph but instead will remain an existential threat to the party.
This was the point at which I realised something that I had completed missed: this will never stop.  There is no placating the brexiters.  Whilst the EU still exists and the UK trades with it, no leave will be good enough for the ultras.