Fixated on free market dogma, and disdainful of economic realities, Liz Truss and her Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng launched their mini-Budget without any explanation of how their tax cuts would be funded. The meltdown that followed saw alarm on the financial markets, the collapse of the Government’s credibility and the end of Truss as PM.
Yet the very Tories who most loudly cheered this reckless plan are now engaged in another doctrinal fight, this time over Brexit.
With a mix of outrage and apprehension, these Conservatives – many members of the sceptical European Research Group – have pounced on rumours that the Government plans to open talks with the EU over a new potential trading arrangement of the kind that Switzerland has recently negotiated.
Some of this speculation was prompted by the Autumn Statement from the new Chancellor Jeremy Hunt, in which he expressed the wish for closer ties and “the removal of trade barriers” with Europe as a means of boosting growth.
The Government has strongly denied that this means a Swiss-type trade or even a return to the Single Market.
Hunt himself told the BBC at the weekend that he was a believer in global free trade but would oppose rejoining the Single Market because that “would be against what the people were voting for when they supported Brexit”.
Yet none of this has quelled the fury of the Brexiteer purists, always on their guard for any signs of backsliding over national sovereignty, despite the historical truth that it was their heroine Margaret Thatcher who largely created the Single Market.
“Treasonous Tory MPs who go along with such a betrayal must lose their seats in 2024,” says one party activist.
This defensive outlook is fuelled in part by the sense that Brexit has not been properly implemented, thanks to the hostility of the Remainerdominated political establishment and civil service.
It is now more than six years since the public voted to leave the EU and almost three years since Boris Johnson won a landslide majority in 2019 “to get Brexit done”.
Yet the process has not been completed, nor have the benefits of independence been exploited. A host of issues remain unresolved, such as the Northern Irish Protocol and border controls.
The paralysis in Parliament, when the Remainers fought tooth and nail to block Brexit, was one problem causing delays.
Another was the focus on the Covid pandemic. It is thanks to factors like these that Brexit has failed to fulfil the expectations of its advocates.
Economic growth has been sluggish. Trade deals, particularly with the USA, have failed to materialize. Immigration has spiralled out of control.
Rows over the Protocol have deepened instability in Northern Ireland. The deterioration in public finances has dashed the dreams of some Brexiteers of a low tax, small state economy, These setbacks have emboldened Remainers, who point to opinion polls with a majority now in favour of EU re-entry.
But the answer is not a rigid adherence to the failing status quo, a kind of fortress-like Brexit version of Ulster Unionism based on the slogan “No Surrender”.
That is only a recipe for further economic decline and public disillusion.
A far better solution would be to ensure Brexit works by adopting more pragmatic, flexible approach, that exploits Britain’s strengths as a cultural powerhouse, a scientific pioneer, a global leader in biotechnology and the possessor of the world’s most widely spoken language.
For those assets to flourish, we cannot retreat into isolation. A s long as our national freedoms remain intact, we therefore should not be afraid of a refashioned deal that could smooth our trade with our biggest, most powerful neighbour and also end the stalemate in Northern Ireland.
Many Brexiteers argue that any reworked agreement with Brussels would be a disaster for the Tories, wrecking any chance of holding on to the Red Wall seats.
But the Conservates are already facing a calamity at the next election. An economic revival is their only hope of recovery, and an expansion of trade is one key way to achieve that.
The 2016 vote must be upheld. But ultimately British democracy and liberty will best be protected by creative engagement, not by inflexible hostility.