Leaders: ‘Corrosive’ split could spell end for Tories

CAMERON risks seeing his party destroyed and the economy badly hurt no matter the result of this month’s Brexit vote

CAMERON risks seeing his party destroyed and the economy badly hurt no matter the result of this month’s Brexit vote

Two weeks ago it was hard to imagine a more bruising challenge to the Prime Minister than that his failed pledge to reduce immigration was “corrosive of public trust”. But now the invective of Michael Gove and Boris Johnson has become altogether more incendiary. Their latest assault on David Cameron and Chancellor George Osborne, delivered in an explosive 2,000 word letter, is of such intensity as to call into question not only whether Mr Cameron can now re-unite the Conservatives but also whether the party itself can survive in its present form.

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The leaders of Vote Leave accuse him of putting the economy in “severe danger” by giving away the UK’s veto during talks in Brussels, and that his renegotiation of Britain’s EU membership leaves the country “dangerously and permanently exposed” to being obliged to hand over more money to Brussels. For good measure they add that the government’s failure to protect taxpayers from funding new bail-outs for the eurozone means the public “cannot trust government promises” in future.

These are deeply divisive charges. The response of the Remain campaign is scarcely less restrained. It has dismissed the letter as “reckless nonsense” and accused its authors of “misleading the British people”.

Such exchanges even between the leaders of rival political parties would be seen as unusually heated, but between senior members of the Conservative government with a small majority, they are extraordinary. As the campaign rhetoric has escalated, with Leave campaigners incensed by the doom-laden forecasts from Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne of what might happen to the economy in the event of a Leave vote, the challenge to the authority of the Prime Minister and Chancellor has grown. Indeed, there is now a real risk that the warnings may themselves damage the sterling exchange rate and become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The exchanges in their passion and anger far exceed those that marked the controversial Maastricht vote during the John Major administration 24 years ago and make the 1975 referendum campaign seem decorous by comparison. In this referendum battle, Mr Cameron has engaged himself fully in the Vote Remain campaign. It was always a high-risk strategy. By doing so he has not only brought his ability to bring the party together in the aftermath into serious question but also triggered open speculation within his own ranks that the party itself is now irretrievably divided. It would take a hefty vote in favour of “Remain” for the profound divisions to abate sufficiently to enable Mr Cameron to remain as an effective Prime Minister.

The indications are that the divisions will prove permanent and thus bring the Conservatives to a historic fault line in its history, evoking comparison with the rupture over the Corn Laws 170 years ago – a controversy that tore the Conservative government apart. History now looks set to repeat itself – and overwhelm the final weeks of campaigning.

The Greatest in and out of the ring

Even before he KO’d George Foreman in the “Rumble in the Jungle” in 1974, Muhammad Ali had become a household name. But even then it was hard to imagine what a global icon he would become, with a fame and following extending far beyond the world of professional boxing.

With an almost balletic performance in the ring, turning primal combat into an exhibition of grace with his dancing feet, astonishing sense of balance, feint and counter-feint, Muhammad Ali was a one-man sporting masterclass. But to this he brought much more: there were the jabbing quips and put-downs and the resort to mischievous, self-aggrandising poetry which unnerved and psychologically undermined his opponents. Ali, one felt, was well on the way to a knock-out even before he entered the ring.

Little wonder that Muhammed Ali became the voice, the inspiration and the folk hero for black America. Before Ali, it was impossible to imagine that a black sportsman could command such fame and attention. Far from his political campaigning and conversion to Islam being career-wreckers, they became a powerful part of his persona, adding to his reputation and celebrity status.

By virtue of his extraordinary qualities he changed the face of America – and with that changed the prospects and life chances for millions of young black Americans.

His boxing prowess was extraordinary. But his legacy to the world was far greater. He towered not just over the boxing ring, but over a generation and an era.

He danced, he quipped, he enchanted – and his power of example was far greater than any knock-out punch.