In December 2016, just six months after the Brexit referendum, a by-election was held in the Lincolnshire constituency of Sleaford and North Hykeham, in an area where 62% of voters had backed leaving the EU. The local Tory MP had quit over his differences with Theresa May and her government over its treatment of refugees, international aid and attempts to exclude Parliament from the Brexit process – and thus sparked a definite contest by the idea that we must confront the EU and escape its grip as quickly as possible. The Conservatives campaigned with the slogan ‘Brexit means Brexit’ and the promise of a ‘fully independent and sovereign country’, and won over 50% of the vote, with Ukip trailing far behind.

When I spent time there, what was interesting was not the rather muted battle between the parties, but a glaring generational divide, which showed up as soon as I started talking to people. At one end of the spectrum, most people over 60 were still preoccupied with the EU, equally keen on a range of issues revolving around it, and worried that Westminster might somehow another snatch Brexit. But anyone under 30 answered questions about such things with either pro-remain opinions or indifferent shrugs.

“I think the old people voted out,” said one woman, who fit right into the first category.

“They want to see this country as it was,” offered her husband. “All the old values ​​are gone, right? There doesn’t seem to be much pride in the country.

As had long been the norm, these sentiments often blurred into rather pungent opinions on immigration and assertions about dark forces trying to rob Britain of its destiny. But when we spoke to students at a nearby college, the only political issues that seemed to matter were the near impossibility of finding accommodation and the lack of good local jobs: any discussion of the notion of nation and belonging drew endless blank stares, almost as if I spoke another language.

Six years later, despite the government’s decline in popularity, Boris Johnson maintains this division. His attempts to pass his recent no-confidence vote focus on his government’s battle with “liberal left lawyers” and the European Court of Human Rights over a truly mind-boggling asylum policy; and his reckless approach to the Northern Ireland protocol is premised on the idea that if all else fails, the Brexit wars will have to be reignited. The mixture of nostalgia, belligerence and a zealous belief in “sovereignty” – whatever that means – that appeared in 2016 has never really gone away. What conservatism offers to anyone unmoved by such summaries is once again a mystery.

What the current contortions of the government actually betray is its concern about the sustainability of the Brexit project. As they try to prop up an increasingly weak Prime Minister, Brexiteers are behaving not like people who have won, but like people brimming with fear and paranoia. On the day of Johnson’s no-confidence vote, Jacob Rees-Mogg warned – despite plenty of evidence to the contrary – that Tory opponents of the Prime Minister were “unBrexit hostile” and that the ballot would “undermine the Brexit referendum”. Suella Braverman, the government’s internal brain trust and attorney general, rejected last week concerns about Northern Ireland as “imaginary remnant”. The right-wing press is full of talk of the remaining plots, including Keir Starmer’s alleged secret plan to get us back to Europe.

Somewhere in their soul, the smartest Brexiters probably know two things. The first is that there will be no material benefit to living outside the EU and its disastrous effects on the economy are now becoming abundantly clear. The other echoes what I found in Sleaford: the fact that the vote to leave the EU was the product of a unique political moment based on a delicate age demographic that has already changed, which which confirms the feeling that hardcore Brexitism is a doomed credo. It will fade as the future unfolds and the disastrous consequences of Brexit become inevitable. But as panic sets in, the strongest conservative instinct is not to rethink. Instead, the most doctrinaire and stupid conservatives see no other option but to double down.

History very often works like this. Supporters sometimes rejoice in seemingly historic triumphs that are followed by defeat and setback, which can still apply to both the referendum and Johnson’s 2019 victory (shades here of the famous criticism of George Dangerfield on the Liberal landslide of 1906: “from that victory they never recovered”). Among revolutionaries and fanatics – a description that surely fits many Brexit Tories – there is always a tendency to assume that if things get out of hand the apparent supporters of a cause will be as passionate and driven as those at the top. , and just as committed to their big ideas. The truth is that if a revolution fails to bring the most basic gains to the people, it will collapse sooner or later; and that anyway, most of us tend to get bored and frustrated quickly by fanatics. Johnson once showed signs of understanding this: it seemed to be the essence of his promise to deliver Brexit. Against this backdrop, in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis, the sight of him and his allies threatening to defeat him and wallow in complete mysteries is something.

In Sleaford and elsewhere, I suspect even many of the seemingly hardened Brexiters of 2016 will remain indifferent, but that’s only half the point. Remember: 73% of 18-24 year olds voted to stay. Among those aged 25-34, this figure was 62%. Three years ago, when hardline Tories lifted the union jack and flirted with a no-deal Brexit, 68% of over-65s said they supported the course of action, but the figure for 18-24 years was only 14%. Does this suggest some sort of solid foundation for a conservative future based on flag-waving belligerence and endless fighting with Brussels?

Obviously not, and the same refreshing and hopeful argument can be applied to the political present. If the Tories lose next week’s by-elections in Devon and West Yorkshire, we are likely to hear a lot about Partygate and people’s doubts about the Prime Minister’s fitness for office. What we should also consider is something that will become increasingly evident: the fact that Johnson and his stubborn allies are beginning to look like generals fighting the last war, willfully unaware of developments in their home country, and the uselessness of their tattered maps.