Euan McColm: After Brexit watch slick Tories self-destruct

The collapse of cabinet responsibility is a taste of the civil war to come once Brexit has been dealt with, writes Euan McColm

Left to right: cabinet rebels Greg Clark, Amber Rudd, David Gauke and David Mundell. Pictures: Ben Stansall, 
Tolga Akmen, Adrian Dennis, 
Daniel Leal-Olivas/Getty
Left to right: cabinet rebels Greg Clark, Amber Rudd, David Gauke and David Mundell. Pictures: Ben Stansall, Tolga Akmen, Adrian Dennis, Daniel Leal-Olivas/Getty

The one thing you could always say about the Conservative Party was that, no matter how divided it might seem, it knew how to do unity when the occasion demanded.

Think back to 2016 and the campaign to replace David Cameron as leader. For a while, Andrea Leadsom looked like having a decent chance at winning and her supporters were perfectly brutal in their assessment of the main challenger.

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

When Leadsom dropped out of the contest after a car-crash newspaper interview in which she seemed to say the fact she was a parent made her the superior candidate, her former supporters threw themselves at the feet of Theresa May.

It’s difficult to imagine now, but for the briefest moment, the new Prime Minister had the backing of a united Conservative Party.

But 2016 is a foreign country where things were done differently. Now, the Tories are split as never before and it is not at all clear that anyone – whether May or any of the MPs tipped to replace her – can bring them together again.

The latest in a series of incidents that underline just how weak the Prime Minister’s grip on her party is came during a fraught series of votes last week during which four cabinet ministers defied the government whip to abstain on a decision to take a no-deal Brexit off the table. The quartet had been under strict orders to oppose the move and their defiance should have cost them their front-bench roles.

Instead, their contempt for May was – despite the anger of some colleagues – meekly accepted. The Prime Minister grinds on, supported by her secretaries of state as the hanged man is supported by the noose.

It was difficult to disagree with Nigel Evans, executive secretary of the 1922 Committee of backbench Conservative MPs, when he said that, without collective responsibility, government “simply doesn’t work”.

If Evans and those who sympathise with him are waiting for action to be taken against Greg Clark, David Gauke, David Mundell and Amber Rudd, they will be waiting for a very long time.

It appears inevitable that Brexit – scheduled to take place on the 29th of this month – will be delayed. Last week the Prime Minister may have maintained her line that she hoped the UK would depart the EU – with a deal in place – on schedule, but that, surely, went beyond the normal boundaries of optimism.

May is, perfectly understandably, blamed by colleagues and opponents alike for the current political crisis engulfing this foolish nation.

It is certainly true that this stiff, awkward and blinkered politician hasn’t helped. She has failed to reach out across the Brexit divide, instead focusing her efforts on placating hardline Tory Eurosceptics. For almost three years, this vocal minority on the Conservative benches has had the upper hand.

But anyone who thinks a different leader might, even now, be overseeing a smooth – and broadly popular – departure from the European Union is kidding themselves.

Arch bullshitters on the Leave side of the argument – former Brexit secretaries David Davis and Dominic Raab, for example – might splutter about missed opportunities and poor strategy but their version of events has a compliant European Union offering solutions to any and all downsides of Brexit because of the confidence of Eurosceptics. Other Leavers, such as backbench reactionary Jacob Rees-Mogg, blithely insist that a no-deal Brexit would be fine and the PM should just get on with things.

One doesn’t have to be an admirer of Theresa May to accept that an alternative leader would be in just as tricky a place right now.

For more than four decades, the Conservative Party has been divided over Europe. A minority of elected members have obsessed over the issue, giving it top priority.

While the European question remained unanswered, it was possible for successive Tory leaders to declare their party a “broad church” with room for different views on the subject.

But the party of today can no longer comfortably accommodate politicians of such wildly differing views. And when Brexit is, finally, done and dusted, it will remain split.

When David Cameron became Tory leader in 2005, he promised a new, more compassionate, more moderate party. Just as Tony Blair had done with Labour a decade before, Cameron would bring the Conservatives up to date.

This new version of the Tory Party had wide appeal, attracting, as it did, new candidates who looked nothing like Conservatives of old. Significant figures such as Scottish party leader Ruth Davidson joined because of Cameron.

But just as Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour is, bizarrely, obsessed with distancing itself from the Blair revolution which turned the party into an election-winning force, so the Brexiteers who hold sway over the Prime Minister are desperately keen to forget the modernising efforts of Cameron.

I wonder whether any senior Tory politician truly believes that their party can unite again in the near future. Can anyone foresee an election campaign which sees, say, remainer Nicky Morgan stand shoulder to shoulder with Rees-Mogg? Is there a church broad enough to contain two such different figures with two such differing ideologies?

If anything now unites the Conservative group at Westminster, it is the Labour Party. Polls might show a Tory lead, but they also showed one in 2017, before May called the snap election that cost her her parliamentary majority. Conservative MPs’ fear of a general election is palpable.

And so the Conservative Party rattles on, hopelessly split and – perhaps – irreparably damaged.

There will come a day when Brexit is resolved. I don’t expect that day to bring with it a new era of Tory unity. The European question, for so long the source of Tory tension, has now hopelessly divided the party.

The Conservative Party is held together by the fear of a Labour election win. That’s hardly the basis from which to built a bright new political future.

Once Brexit is out of the way, watch any last semblance of Tory unity melt away. If the Conservatives are to survive in the long term, they require a civil war and one side – either Leaver or Remainer – requires to lose decisively.