Divisions amongst Tories make a People’s Vote more likely

by Nick Kent | 06.09.2018

The Tory split over Europe has been growing since the 1992 Maastricht Treaty. It has now reached the stage where the division isn’t just between pro- and anti-Europeans anymore. Like a great river that dissolves into a hundred rivulets as it nears the sea, the Conservative party has split into many streams. And they are not flowing in the same direction.

This fracturing of the party makes it hard to predict what Tory MPs will do when Theresa May presents the outcome of the EU negotiations. If she has a deal to bring back, it won’t be the Chequers plan – the EU has said they cannot agree to that. It is likely to be one that ties the UK to EU regulations and to its court and requires contributions to EU coffers. That will make it a bitter pill for the Leavers to swallow.

Tory MPs are under pressure from their local parties to take a pro-Brexit line and there is little support amongst Tory voters for the Chequers plan. The announcement that Boris Johnson is to hold a rally at the party conference just adds to the sense of crisis.

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Yet however bad the deal, two things unite most Tory MPs: they want the easiest way out of the Brexit mess and they don’t want Johnson as leader. Until Brexit is done, runs the argument in the Commons tearoom, there is no political space for anything else. Whatever ideas Tories might have about new housing, boosting skills or a plan to pay for community care, they cannot get any airtime or political traction.

Tory MPs know that Johnson can come up with a neat phrase (“two-thirds of diddly squat”) but not a viable alternative plan. The Leavers claim that they are producing detailed plans but that’s an old trick they used before the referendum. In 2015 they produced a 1,000 page report on why the EU needed to change or the UK should leave. The “new” plans will display the same optimism bias that we see in all their pronouncements. Most Tory MPs don’t think “things can only get better” is a good song, never mind a policy.

All this makes Tory MPs more inclined to vote for whatever May secures. But there are pressures in the other direction. The launch of Conservatives for a People’s Vote, supported by former education secretary Justine Greening and former health minister Phillip Lee, reflects a growing belief in the party that a people’s vote maybe the only way out of the cul-de-sac it is stuck in. The fact that Theresa May went out of her way to attack the idea of such a vote shows that No. 10 now sees it as a threat.

With opinion polls showing a clear majority for staying in the EU, Tories face a dilemma – do they adopt a bad deal with the EU to appease the Leavers in their own party but at the price of alienating even more voters? A people’s vote would be difficult for hardline Leavers to accept but it is the only answer to the Tory dilemma that can keep the party together.

Edited by Luke Lythgoe