Can the Conservative Party survive Brexit?
Updated: Feb 10, 2019
Can the party survive in its current form, or will Brexit send it spinning into the political abyss?
As the Conservative Party meet for their annual conference, this year in the Midlands city of Birmingham, a question is hanging over the whole affair: are the Tories doomed?
Britain all but invented political parties, in their modern form. The precursor to the Conservative Party (or Conservative and Unionist Party, to give it its full name) was the Tory Party. The Tory party and its then rival the Whig party were formed in the latter part of the 17th century. It's not possible to say the Tory Party was founded then, as political parties were still in important ways shifting alliances of common interest, rather than political organisations with bureaucracies and memberships. What has always been consistent about the Tories is that they are the party of the property-owning class, and are generally opposed to change.
Today the Conservative Party faces an existential crisis. It was David Cameron, Prime Minister from May 2010 - June 2016, who called a referendum into Britain's membership of the EU. In perhaps the greatest single act of political folly in Britain's modern history, his motivation was to silence a bunch of awkward MPs within his own party. Rather than impose some strict internal discipline, or just ignore the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg and Peter Bone, Cameron called an 'in-out' referendum. The whole country was dragged into what was an essentially an internal Tory Party spat. Polls consistently showed support for membership of the EU, so Cameron thought he could win easily. As it happened the official Leave campaign broke electoral law and ran a very pernicious and negative campaign, aided by the likes of Nigel Farage and the Leave.eu extremists. Cameron lost, and immediately fell on his sword. Theresa May has been trying, and failing, to deal with the consequences ever since.
The Conservatives have been split over Europe ever since Britain joined the Common Market in 1972. The pragmatists in the party - like Ted Heath and John Major - have seen the economic and geopolitical advantages of membership of the Euro-club as greater than the opportunities of staying out, or leaving. They have battled against a group who became known as Eurosceptics, then Leavers and now Brexiteers. For this second group European membership is a threat to British (read: English) sovereignty and limits the scope of the UK's globetrotting vision. There has also been a heavy dose of old-fashioned suspicion of the UK's European neighbours: fear of a resurgent, powerful Germany; condescension towards a supposedly intractably socialist, Catholic France. What is different now about this split is quite how raw the divide has become.
Theresa May is Prime Minister for one reason only. She is the only person who is willing, or blinkered enough, to take the job. The business of leaving the European Union is a task unlike one that a PM has faced previously. Past leaders have battled enemies across the water, in the form of Napoleon and Hitler, but at least in those situations there was strategic certainty and a good chance of leading a country united behind sure-footed political leadership. May, on the other hand, has no strategy, no direction, no plan to rally either her people or her party to. The negotiations with the EU have been a thankless, impossible task. The UK is negotiating from a position of profound weakness and has nowhere near the necessary bureaucratic bandwidth to cope. Once Brexit happens - and especially if it doesn't happen - May will immediately be thrown to the wolves. She is a politically useful figurehead for a Tory party who know they have sown a whirlwind, but are unwilling to stand against the storm.
In turn the Tory Party is holding together because the alternative is to split, and be damned by an electoral system that punishes anything but the very biggest, most united political parties. In the past, there might be secret briefing to friendly journalists, leaked stories and whispers in the Commons bars, but publicly a pretence of unity was maintained. Not any more. The different warring factions within the Conservatives now openly hate each other. Steve Baker MP goes on TV with great regularity to talk about how many rebels he may be able to muster from inside the Prime Minister's own party. With such a narrow majority in the Commons - May has one only with the help of the DUP - any serious rebellion would immediately spell the end of May's time in power.
The problem is that the different sides of the Tory Party may not be able to hold together much longer. Before the referendum, discussions about Europe were heated, but largely hypothetical; leaving wasn't a serious option. Once the vote had happened, a kind of shell-shock fell upon the majority of the party (with notable exceptions like Anna Soubry MP). Having lost a Prime Minister in Cameron, and then a Commons majority thanks to May's ill-fated snap election, the party was not in the mood for another kicking. As we get nearer to Brexit day - March 29th 2019 - this woozy truce will not likely not hold. The country, and shortly after the politicians, are going to wake up soon to just how catastrophic leaving the EU would be - especially without any sort of a deal. At this point the leave/remain cleavage will be impossible to bridge. As it stands, the Tories are home to political visions completely opposed to one another. As a political phenomenon this state of affairs is a deeply unusual in peacetime. For all the uncertainty, we are currently between elections. Once a ballot is called the split will become completely unbridgable. Either the party will not be able to agree on a manifesto, or voters will see through the sheen of party window dressing to the rotten and broken down shop floor. The Tories would lose big, and surely descend into bitter, protracted recriminations.
The future for the Tories
Can the Conservatives hold together? Two very big factors suggest it's still possible. The first is the British electoral system, which crushes somewhat-similar political factions together into each of the two opposing super-parties. The second was referred to earlier: that the Tories are the party of property. While there are still people living in the UK with money and interests to protect there will be a Tory party, or something similar enough. It could easily be that the Tories with a semblance of intelligence or conscience leave following Brexit to be replaced by people who will more pliably follow the whims of the City and multi-nationals. The party could be hollowed out and filled in, in the way that UKIP has recently been taken over wholesale by the non-closet racists and alt-right attention seekers.
We are, for now, living in the Brexit epoch. Nothing politically in the UK can be understood except through the filter of the EU referendum. It does not so much cast a long shadow, as drown all before it in an inky black darkness. Theresa May is like a fish living in the deep, deep ocean. She is curiously adapted to the inhospitable conditions down there - the immense pressure and the terrible cold. Closer to the surface, up near the light, she would fall prey to faster, hungrier animals. The Tory party will not depose May this conference season, but Brexit might yet see an end to them and their party for good by this time next year.