It’s become cliche that every Tory prime minister since Major at least has been brought down by Europe. Also, that it appears to be happening yet again. I think Brexit exposes something deeper than this in terms of the problems faced by the Conservative party, going all the way back to Thatcher’s departure in 1990, and it’s not so much about the UK’s membership of the European Union as it is about what the Conservative party is and what it exists to do.
First of all, the party is actually the Conservatives and Unionists. Problem is, some people within the party care very, very deeply about the Union and some actively dislike it (although orthodoxy causes them to hide this). Brexit has always been an existential threat to the Union – and behind the scenes, most Brexiteers fully own up to this. Yes, it would be a shame if Scotland went independent and Ireland reunited, but we should hardly let the tail wag the dog here, should we? After all, England needs to do what it needs to do, and if the Celts don’t care for Brexit, well, there are options. A very public disagreement between those who think the Union is one of the main reasons why they are Tories in the first place and those who don’t really care either way has been simmering for some time.
Coming back to the dilemma posed at the end of the first paragraph: what is the party for and what it is exists to do? Pre-Thatcher, the Tories were a mostly ideology free zone, at least at national level. Ideology was for the lefties, it was thought; it is the Tories who will just get on with whatever works and keep things ticking along. Thatcherism was a break with this, with free market ideology coming front and centre in a way it hadn’t previously. Yes, the Tories pre-’79 had been pro-business, but Thatcher took it to a whole new level. The fallout from Thatcherism created a situation in which whole swathes of the country became areas where the Tories wouldn’t, couldn’t really win again, even up until the present day (the 2017 general election was expected to reverse this trend; it definitively did not). This is the main reason, it strikes me, that the Conservative party have struggled to get majorities since 1992, and why even when they got one in 2015, it was a very thin majority that was only achieved by the one-off effect of the Lib Dem collapse.
Brexit places this question back front and centre: are the Tories a party of basic conservatism, as in, are they there to keep things ticking along with whatever compromises that entails, or are they a party of the radical right, willing to create occasional havoc to achieve their ends? This to me is the fundamental dilemma the Conservative party faces, whatever happens with the Brexit vote. That’s what the split between the ERG and May essentially amounts to. The prime minister negotiated a deal she felt would honour the referendum result without causing disruption – a classic, old school Tory bit of moderation. The ERG, who see this all as a once in a lifetime possibility to radically alter the way the country runs, are adamant that this chance is taken. This is why they are saying they will vote down May’s deal – they want it all or nothing. They must be aware that what they are doing makes no Brexit much more likely; no matter, they are willing to take that gamble.
Once May moves on, the question about what the Tories want to be will become even more salient. The one nation group will argue that if the Tories occupy the centre-ground, they will be sure to defeat the Marxist opposition; the ERG bunch will claim that Corbynism can only be fought with an opposing idea that is equally radical. We’ll see who wins in the end – and if that causes a split in the most successful political party in the history of the world.