For Tories, breaking up is not so hard to do

by Nick Kent | 17.07.2018

Ever since 1992, when John Major won the general election with a majority of 25 and a manifesto commitment to implement the Maastricht Treaty, the Tory Party has been breaking up. Furious at the prospect that the UK might one day join the euro, Tory Eurosceptics sabotaged Major’s government. By doing so, they helped put Tony Blair in power.

The Brexiters of today are the heirs to the Maastricht rebels of 1992 – some indeed, are survivors of that era. But today they have new foot soldiers in their army as well as some ruthless and sophisticated lieutenants.

Theresa May avoided confronting them until she produced the Chequers white paper last week. It was a tactic that demonstrated her belief that the Brexiters in her party are more numerous, and more fanatical, than the Remainers. The white paper exploited the fact, however, that there is a split in the Brexiter ranks. The pragmatists (Michael Gove, Liam Fox) believe that getting out on March 29 next year is what matters – any deal with the EU can be unpicked later if necessary. The “Global Britain” advocates (Boris Johnson, David Davis) take a different view: they want to get out with a deal that guarantees an irreversible split from the EU.

The difficulty for Gove and Fox is that backbench Tory Brexiters are not following their lead. Instead they have rallied behind the hard Brexit promoted by Jacob Rees-Mogg and his European Research Group. Although claims that they have 80-100 MPs behind them are exaggerated, there is certainly a hard core of 35-40 supporters. They are being mobilised by Steve Baker, the unofficial ERG whip who is a past master at disciplining Tory Brexiters. His resignation from the government after Chequers was arguably more important than that of David Davis in the battle for a hard Brexit.

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The central tactic of the Brexiters in the ERG will be what they used in 1992/93: bully, bully and bully again. They will viciously attack Tory Remainers and they will work with any opposition MP who can be useful to them – as last night when Baker persuaded four Labour MPs to back the ERG amendments to the Taxation Bill. They won’t try to overthrow May, at least for the moment. They believe she is too weak to resist them and they do not think a motion of no confidence would get the votes needed to remove her.

Will the ERG succeed in forcing a hard Brexit? They have probably blocked the Chequers customs proposal, but the EU was unlikely to agree to that anyway. There isn’t a majority for a hard Brexit in the Commons, but ministers are running out of time to clarify the alternative. Remember that the EU won’t sign a trade deal with the UK before we leave. The best May will get is the outline of a future agreement, which will then take more years to be negotiated and ratified.

The problem for the government is that they must resolve the question of the Irish border before March 29. Without agreement in principle on a future trade arrangement, May is stuck with an Irish backstop that would create a sea border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. That is unacceptable to most MPs. While the Brexiters will push hard for a Canada-style trade deal, the fact that it would not solve the Irish border question means that May will be forced to resist them. There may be no majority for any deal on offer.

This parliamentary deadlock is what pushed Justine Greening into calling for a people’s vote yesterday. More Conservative MPs are likely to join her as the Tory Party continues to tear itself apart.

Edited by Quentin Peel

3 Responses to “For Tories, breaking up is not so hard to do”

  • It Is time Mr Rees-Mogg and his hard line brexiteers are asked the direct question. Have they a solution of the Irish question? and if not that any hard Brexit or a no deal will result in a hard border between N&S Ireland and will they be prepared to take full responsibility for a return to the Troubles of which the activities of extremists on the 12th are only a harbinger of what may (will) happen in the future if a hard border comes about.

  • Mrs May is now totally stuck. The white paper is her last throw of the dice, the natural conclusion of the endless kicking of the can down the road. The idea, I imagine was to run the clock down then offer a fait accompli. It was the only strategy, but even that doesn’t work. Having a Peoples’ Vote is a great idea, but not if the Government can’t even come up with a proposal to vote on.

    My conclusion is that what has really been killed by Brexit is our two party, first-past-the-post electoral system. The referendum has driven a coach and horses through both main parties to such an extent that they are irreparably damaged. The Prime Minister needs to tell the hard brexiters that there is no place for them in the Conservative Party and that if they won’t accept the White Paper, they should go and form their own party. She then calls an election and challenges the Labour Party to unequivocally state where they stand on Brexit or also split in two. We could then fight a general election with five competing parties: Hard Left (brexit), Moderate Labour (remain), Liberals, Conservative (probably remain) and Hard Brexit Tory (plus some UKIP if it is still alive).

    We would have to ask for an extension to Article 50, but the EU would probably grant anything if they thought that we might come up with a sensible solution. The people could then vote at an election that would be clearly a vote about Brexit and how the electorate want this country to move forward. It would likely end in a coalition government, the result might even be surprising, but whatever it was the winners would have asked the right questions and would have a mandate to take us forward.

    The realignment of our politics that this would involve might even set us up for Government that is properly representative and give us a political set up ready for the next generation.

  • That the Tory Party is tearing itself apart does not bother me at all, it is the fact that they are also tearing the whole nation apart which is deeply worrying.