It is the nature of large mainstream political parties to be divided, but never before have I witnessed one so at war with itself as the Theresa May’s Conservative Party.
The Prime Minister’s Withdrawal Agreement is so thoroughly unpopular with her own MPs that speculation is now moving away from “if” she will lose and on to the number she will lose by.
The ConservativeHome website estimates there are 66 Tory MPs that have made public comments about opposing the Withdrawal Agreement while a more liberal interpretation by Buzzfeed puts the total at 101. Now, in what is possibly the most inept and foolish action I have ever seen by a Conservative leader, her party has dispatched tens of thousands of postcards to association offices so they can be put through letterboxes to encourage voters to tell their MP to back the Prime Minister’s “deal” when it comes to a vote in the Commons on 11 December. In addition the postcards are being backed up with online advertising.
MPs and party members are rightly furious, with many a comment being made that the postcards will not be distributed but will instead go straight to the local council tip. Others are outraged the money they raise from quiz nights, coffee mornings, book fairs, or wine tastings and the like, is being used not to help defeat political opponents but to lobby against the views of elected Conservatives. Given the so-called “rebels” are in fact MPs supporting the manifesto they were elected on, the use of the party machine against its own elected members is truly bizarre.
The latest ConservativeHome members’ survey shows 68% of respondents believe Conservative MPs should vote against the Withdrawal Agreement, underlining just how disconnected Theresa May has become from ordinary party members and conversely how in-touch the rebellious MPs are.
Unfortunately the voice and influence of the volunteers has been marginalised consistently over the last twenty years to the point that the leader (and thus the Prime Minister) faces little threat of accountability from the beating heart of the party. There was a time when the voluntary party, made up of those who pay their subs and toil on the doorsteps, invited the leadership to attend their conferences and hear members debate motions (including selecting some in a ballot) that could change the direction of policy and ensure the politicians did not get ahead of themselves. All of that has gone and the consequence is Theresa May now inhabits a world where she can think it is nothing out of the ordinary to rely on the votes of Labour MPs to force a policy on the country that is contrary to everything she was saying just last year.
Nor does she seem to think that if such a core policy as the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement is rejected, thanks in the main to her own MPs being unwilling to support it, should she resign as Prime Minister and allow someone else to come forward and do better.
The Withdrawal Agreement is May’s policy through and through; it is no one else’s. Even the former Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab only learned of the details the day before the Cabinet was informed. When it is defeated it will be a personal defeat for the Prime Minister. If she does not resign it can only be because she believes she can go back to Brussels and extract a better deal than she was prepared to put to Parliament. It might be that some further cosmetic changes can indeed be teased out, but that is what they are likely to be – cosmetic. The possibility of any revised agreement being supported must therefore remain slim.
There is some ignorant talk of the Prime Minister calling a general election, completely ignoring the fact that the Fixed-term Parliaments Act has made that impossible unless there is a Commons vote with a two-thirds majority in favour. Conservative MPs are more likely to want a change of party leader to deliver a new Prime Minister than risk letting the electorate make the change themselves.What will also be dwelling on the minds of Conservative MPs is that this febrile and stressful state of affairs has lasted for two years since the referendum – but were the Withdrawal Agreement to be passed there would be a further two years with the same heightened atmosphere.
The way to resolve this revolving door of painful division is to vote the deal down and accept the remaining time up to the 29th March should be used to negotiate a managed and orderly clean break. All the potential problems identified by the Department for Exiting the EU can be the subject of discussions so they are mitigated. Some, such as difficulties over passenger flights and visas have already received verbal commitments from the EU that would resolve them, while others, such as border procedures, can be minimised through the application of existing technologies. In part, those problems that do exist are often because UK and EU agencies have held off from instigating staff training for new procedures until they knew if there would be a deal or not. When it comes to negotiating a smooth and clean break from the EU, that £39 billion – for which there is no obligation to pay – can take on a new importance all of its own.
After a clean break happens and life settles down the Conservatives can go back to the normal political agenda of finding solutions to the country’s problems and recognise they have far more in common within their party than the botched Brexit that is driving them apart.