It’s still Europe that could rip the Tories apart

It’s still Europe that could rip the Tories apart

The ideological splits over Brexit are so profound that senior figures in the party talk of ‘poison’ and a ‘Biblical curse’

The ideological splits over Brexit are so profound that senior figures in the party talk of ‘poison’ and a ‘Biblical curse’

In the Japanese tradition of ceramics, broken pottery is mended using lacquer mixed with powdered gold. The idea is to treat breakage and repair as part of the history of the object, turning the cracks into beautiful golden threads rather than something to disguise. For centuries, kintsugi (golden joinery) was such a celebrated art form that some collectors deliberately broke their pots so they could be put back together with precious metal seams. It could be a metaphor for the Tory party, which seems intent, yet again, on highlighting its fissures over Europe.

Roy Jenkins compared Tony Blair to a man carrying a precious Ming vase over a slippery floor as he prepared to face the electorate in 1997. Theresa May was similarly cautious ahead of this year’s general election but, unlike the former Labour leader, she dropped the vase and smashed her party’s majority to bits. Now, as the Conservatives try to piece themselves back together, they are following the Japanese philosophy of emphasising the cracks, but instead of beautiful gold they are joined with an ugly black tar.

“Europe is the poison coursing through the Tory party’s veins,” one minister says. “We can’t have a leadership election until Brexit is resolved because it would turn into a battle about this toxic subject and that would destroy us.”

‘I do think the party could split over the terms of the Brexit deal’

The extraordinary breakdown of cabinet discipline that has been on display in recent weeks is, of course, driven by personal ambition and leadership positioning unleashed by the prime minister’s catastrophic loss of authority. But it is no coincidence that the source of division is Britain’s relationship with its continental neighbours, the issue once described by Lord Patten, the former party chairman, as this country’s eternal “psychodrama”. The Tory party’s collective angst over Europe has already destroyed three Conservative prime ministers — Margaret Thatcher, John Major and David Cameron and it is now annihilating another.

“It’s done for all of them and it will do for Theresa May,” says one former cabinet minister. “The Tory party has a biblical curse on it over Europe because there are people who believe it is more important than party politics. I do think the party could split over the terms of the Brexit deal. There’s a group of Brexiteers who even if the Archangel Gabriel has delivered the perfect Brexit will be moaning about betrayal.”

Last year’s referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU was supposed to heal the internal divide but has instead infected the wound and spread the contagion to the country. The political historian Peter Hennessy argues that Europe has divided all parties for 50 years because it defies tribal loyalties. “The two-party system is not constructed to handle it because it’s not a left-right question, it goes to the essence of sovereignty and identity,” he says. For the Conservatives, who see themselves as representing both of these things, but with fundamental disagreements about what they mean, this is an impossible conundrum. According to Peter Hennessy: “The Conservative Party has always had the greatest emotional deficit with Europe because it was never a substitute for Commonwealth. For the Conservatives it’s mixed in with free trade, protectionism and the ‘great nation’ impulse. It’s deeper than normal economic questions.”

In the 19th century the Conservative Party split between free marketeers and protectionists over the repeal of the Corn Laws. Now the Brexit row is about far more than the future of the single market, the free movement of people or the European Court of Justice. It is a battle to define progress and patriotism. The Brexiteers claim to champion outward-looking modernity, but a senior pro-European minister insists that their vision of “global Britain” is a myth. “This row is about the future versus the past. The Brexiteers somehow think we are going to go sailing off into some glorious imperial world without realising that in the modern age we are interdependent,” he says. “We are stuck in a ‘damned if we do, damned if we don’t’ bind. If we try to cancel exit we destroy ourselves; if we go ahead with it we destroy the country. People voted fora fantasy.”

The lions believe in parliament while the leopards are populists

Although Labour has its own problems, the Tory cracks over Europe are so ugly because they are about what it means to be a Conservative. The party has always been divided between small-c conservatives, who value stability, tradition and co-operation, and radicals who favour free-market individualism and disruption as the only way to liberate the country from stultifying bureaucracies. If the first group are the Tory “lions”, the second group are the party’s “leopards” who are conservative only in the sense of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s maxim in his novel The Leopard: “Everything must change so that everything can stay the same.”

There are temperamental as well as ideological disagreements around the cabinet table. Mrs May, Philip Hammond, Damian Green and Amber Rudd are lions, and Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, David Davis and Liam Fox are leopards. As education secretary, Mr Gove took the Maoist view that the world only makes progress through the process of creative destruction, while his aides quoted the Facebook mantra “Move fast and break things”. Mr Johnson is the Tories’ own Lord of Misrule who only ever wanted a referendum to shake things up. Mr Davis, son of a single mother who grew up on a council estate, sees his role as to infiltrate the establishment and destroy the elites. Last week Mr Fox showed that leopards do not change their spots when he declared with extraordinary flippancy that a trade deal “should be one of the easiest in human history”.

This faultline between establishment and anti-establishment Conservatives is in fact the political thread running through all the disagreements over Brexit. Although the lions believe in the importance of parliament, and would like to give MPs a bigger say over the Brexit deal, the leopards are populists, who are dismissive of experts and want to “trust the people” to determine the country’s future. The first group wants a lengthy transitional arrangement to minimise the economic shock.,The second group, wary of compromise, wants a strict time limit on any transition and is even prepared to crash out with no deal at all.

The truth is that the Conservative splits over Europe are so vicious and enduring because they are about party definition as well as national identity. This is not a rational disagreement that can easily be resolved. The Brexit vote, which was itself a plea for both reassurance and revolution, is bringing the uneasy coalition between the radicals and conservatives in the Tory party close to breaking point. In the Conservative jungle, the lions and the leopards will fight to the death.

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