On the Edge of Disaster, Theresa May Becomes the High Priestess of Hard Brexit

British politics and the Conservative party in particular have always been riddled with faction over issues such as the Corn Laws, Tariff reform and Irish Home Rule. Europe is just this modern incarnation of this age old problem.  

The uncertainty and the need for a new direction following the end of Empire made splits in the Tory part inevitable.  It is easy to forget that the Tories were the first europhiles and have had a proud tradition of supporting closer integration. These are the true believers, the Ken Clarkes, Michael Heseltines, and Chris Pattens of this world.

Then there are the sizeable number of realists who do not believe in the vision but accept Britain’s new direction is best served being part of Europe, in this category belong David Cameron and George Osborne as well as most of the Conservative MPs that backed remain.

The third category is the eurosceptics; most although, by no means all, are on the Tory Right and like remainers also contain factions within factions. You have the more principled eurosceptics whose main objection is the idea of European integration itself, men such as David Davis, and Michael Gove. Then there are the Atlanticists, people like Daniel Hannan and Liam Fox who dream of an ‘Anglosphere’ of English-speaking peoples and seem more than happy to surrender influence to Washington instead of Brussels.

Finally, there are the Colonel Blimps, the neo-imperialists who have not accepted that Britain is no longer a global power and are determined to ‘make Britain great again’ droning on about the commonwealth, blue passports and better times. These include people like Peter Bone, Jacob-Rees-Mogg and Owen Patterson.

Of course, there are shared views and values between them but the important fact is that the ‘Tory Right’ is not an easy concept to define and, therefore, is not always clear who to apportion blame for the disaster we are now in.

For a slightly unsatisfying definition of  the ‘Tory Right’ we need to look at those opposed to both social liberalism and modern forms of globalisation this includes members of all three broad categories of 'eurosceptic'.

Of course, they would not consider themselves ‘guilty’ in anyway: they genuinely believe they have liberated the UK from the shackles of Europe and that we should be grateful for the Jerusalem we are about to build in a post-Brexit utopia.

senior members of a mainstream party campaigned alongside those whom the leadership had dubbed ‘loonies’ and ‘fruitcakes’

Ever since Maastricht, these eurosceptic ‘bastards’ (to use John Major’s colourful phrase) have been in the ascendency in the Conservative Party and can therefore point to genuine local support. Nearly 60% of those who voted Conservative in the 2015 election backed Leave in the Referendum and this does not include the huge numbers of former Conservatives who have gone to UKIP, for reasons that include not only Europe but also issues such as Same Sex Marriage.

In leadership election after leadership election, post-1997, it was always the ‘eurosceptic’ that won, most notably in 2001 when Ian Duncan Smith beat Ken Clarke despite the former Chancellor being the obvious better choice, who was also popular in the wider country. It was clearly the European issue that led to Clarke’s defeat; he has always been unabashed about his views. This was the Conservative ‘Corbyn’ moment when the Party was talking to itself rather than the people.

When Cameron was elected in 2005, he was aware of this history and the need to appease those on the Tory right who have always disliked the EU.  In 2009, under pressure from the right-wing Cornerstone group, Cameron left the mainstream EPP grouping in the European Parliament, forming his own eccentric coalition which included amongst its ranks fairly unsavoury allies. Worried about appearing too wet, green and progressive. Europe offered a policy area in which Cameron could be seen as giving some red meat to the Tory right.

In the 2010 election, Gordon Brown even accused Cameron of being too ‘anti-Europe’ during the TV debates and Cameron himself was in the habit of defining himself as a proud ‘eurosceptic’. This was something that leaders now felt they had to do to keep the Tory right on side.

During the coalition there was less to worry about, the government had a comfortable majority and therefore felt little need to listen to the 30 or so ‘awkward squad’ of Tory right MPs or even the Eurosceptic ministers in the Cabinet.

UKIP though was a different matter: many former Conservatives supporters were beginning to defect and fears about immigration were continuing to chime with voters concerns. UKIP became the first non-major Party to win an election in the 2014 European elections; they also began picking up councillors and famously winning two by-elections after two Tory MPs defected. This emboldened the Tory right as well as worrying the party leadership.

Cameron’s 2015 victory, with a majority of just 12, sealed his and ultimately the country’s fate. It is undoubtedly because of the Tory right that we had the 2016 referendum in the first place. It is difficult to imagine that without pressure from them, and fear of UKIP, that Cameron would not have included a referendum pledge in the Conservative manifesto.

The right then lent a degree of respectability to the Leave campaign; senior members of a mainstream party campaigned alongside those whom the leadership had dubbed ‘loonies’ and ‘fruitcakes’. Good media performers were willing to endorse what even they must have realised were outrageous untruths, as well as condoning if not actually inflaming hatred and fear.

May is more guilty than anyone else

The situation we are now in - Theresa May heading towards the cliff edge of a hard Brexit - would not have been possible without those in the Conservative party who have always had a fanatical and even irrational hatred of the EU and what it stands for.

They have realised they can silence anyone who disagrees with them in Parliament and the county by accusations that they are ‘thwarting the will of the British people’. Conservative MPs who backed Remain were in the majority before but, like Saul on the road to Damascus, they have now had a miraculous conversion to the new religion, becoming willing tools of the Conservative right.

Theresa May herself has become the High Priestess of these new converts, permitting the Conservative right free reign in debates and allowing them to define the narrative of leaving, coming down hard on those who are seen as  ‘disloyal’. This is all in the name of keeping the party together and holding on to her support base, not about the best interests of the country.

Ultimately May is more guilty than anyone else; the right may be deluded fantasists but they truly believe what they are doing is right.

Theresa May, on the other hand, is just an enabler, going against what she supposedly believes in order to fulfil a vision of Brexit that is associated with only the extreme fringe of her own party. This is probably the greatest crime of all.

More about the author

About the author

Stewart holds a PhD in eighteenth century political history from UCL, having previously studied for a BA and MA in history at Royal Holloway, University of London. 

He is currently working as a Part-Time Tutor for Oxford University’s Continuing Education Department as well as helping to create and launch an online historical archive of magazine-style feature articles written by history graduates called The Past.

Follow Stewart on Twitter.

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