Argument

Britain’s Tories Bravely Put Party Before Country

Internal fights among the Conservatives have wrecked the U.K.—and Labour isn’t much better.

British Prime Minister David Cameron speaking during the Conservative Party Spring Forum on April 9, 2014 in London, United Kingdom.   (Photo by Kerry Davies - WPA Pool/Getty Images)
British Prime Minister David Cameron speaking during the Conservative Party Spring Forum on April 9, 2014 in London, United Kingdom. (Photo by Kerry Davies - WPA Pool/Getty Images) Kerry Davies-WPA Pool/Getty Images

“Britain faces a simple and inescapable choice,” warned David Cameron in a notorious tweet prior to the 2015 election. “Stability and strong Government with me, or chaos with Ed Miliband.”

Periodically resurrecting this comment has become a British Twitter tradition as Brexit chaos reigns and strong government, let alone stability, are distant memories. The joke might be getting old, but it remains remarkable just how badly the Conservative Party—together with the help of an ineffectual Labour Party —have messed things up in Britain. At the recent E3 gaming show, the showpiece setting of a new open-world game, Watch Dogs Legion—the kind of thing usually set in the radioactive ruins of Washington or the badlands of Chechnya—was a future post-Brexit London.

Any achievements the government might claim—record numbers of people in work, a “balancing of the books”—have been completely overshadowed by Brexit, a farce produced as a direct result of internal Tory squabbling and dissension.

Conservative division over Europe goes back decades. It was a Conservative prime minister, Edward Heath, who first took Britain into the European Economic Community (the predecessor of the EU) in 1973. Two years later Britain reaffirmed its membership in a public referendum.

Yet arguments within the Tory party rumbled on. Although Margaret Thatcher campaigned for Britain to stay in the EEC under Heath, she grew increasingly Euroskeptic as prime minister, and it was the resignation of her deputy prime minister, Geoffrey Howe, over Europe in 1990 that delivered the coup de grâce to her government.

Her successor, John Major, was nearly brought down by his party’s Euroskeptics. The Major government did manage to ratify the Maastricht Treaty, which created the constitutional basis for the European Union, but only after prolonged and intense internal party bickering.

It was nearly two decades later that Cameron, never short on Etonian hubris (when asked why he wanted to be prime minister, he reportedly said he believed he would “be rather good at it”), promised to put Tory divisions to bed over Europe once and for all. In his first party conference speech Cameron told his party to stop “banging on about Europe.” Cameron also hoped to see off the insurgent U.K. Independence Party, which by the end of 2012 had become the party of choice for the anti-government vote. And so in January 2013 Cameron gave his fateful Bloomberg speech, in which he promised an in/out referendum.

Cameron’s speech has aged just as poorly as his tweet. Aimed at assuaging Tory backbenchers who were looking on admiringly at the rise of UKIP, Cameron pledged to “settle this European question in British politics” by holding an in/out referendum.

Six years later, Cameron’s beleaguered successor Theresa May leaves office with parliament deadlocked and the country sharply divided over a desirable Brexit outcome. The British economy has also begun to suffer: In April the economy contracted for the second straight month, with GDP falling by 0.4 percent. Car manufacturing plummeted by 24 percent.

The notion that a referendum would quell internal Tory divisions in one fell swoop was always delusional. The Conservative Party has its incorrigible hard-liners—and so does Labour.

Foremost on the Tory side is Jacob Rees-Mogg, the member of Parliament for North East Somerset and nanny-loving imperial fantasist who has popularized the idea that Britain can leave the EU with no deal and come away unscathed. A savvier Conservative leader would have faced down Rees-Mogg and his irresponsible chatter about a seamless no-deal Brexit. Instead May chose to indulge Rees-Mogg’s fantasy in order to appease her own party, publicly repeating the non sequitur that “no deal is better than a bad deal.”

Not only is no deal in itself a bad deal, no deal still means a deal has to be made in the future—just under worse terms and greater chaos. Backing up Rees-Mogg is likely future prime minister Boris Johnson, whose own attitude toward Brexit seems largely determined by whatever route offers him a path to power—regardless of the consequences for the country.

May’s own woeful performance can be measured via public attitudes toward Brexit. When she came to office back in 2016, there was a clear majority in Britain for a negotiated Brexit. May squandered that consensus and dived straight into sort of anti-EU and anti-Remainer rhetoric beloved by hardliners, attacking “citizens of nowhere.” This has helped create an even more divided and damaged country. Again, May was seeking to assuage the hard-liners in her own party rather than unite the country.

The failure to agree on a relatively amiable Brexit has left the rest of government neglected as the Conservatives battle amongst themselves. Britain’s adult social care system is in crisis, productivity in the economy is poor, and catastrophic housing prices are contributing to widening generational inequality.

But none of this was on May’s agenda—nor does it look to be on the next leader’s. Like Cameron, May prioritized the unity of the Conservative Party over the future of the country. Twice as many Britons still see a no-deal Brexit as a more negative outcome than a positive one, yet for three years May has indulged Rees-Mogg and his hard-line Euroskeptic European Research Group, together with their bogus claims that a majority in the country yearn for no deal.

Yet there are no inspiring examples on the other side of the aisle. Labour, with its confusing policy of constructive ambiguity, has allowed the Brexit situation to deteriorate in the hope of bringing about a general election.

The Labour Party’s own internal divisions—already bad—have been exacerbated by the party leadership’s equivocation on Brexit. Former loyalists to the party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, such as the journalist Paul Mason, have called for the prominent “Lexiteers” who surround Corbyn—Seumas Milne, Ian Lavery, and Karie Murphy—to be sacked and for Labour to unite around a “remain and reform strategy.” In response, Mason has been targeted by pro-Corbyn blogs. Ironically, the party activists who propelled Euroskeptic Corbyn to the leadership in 2015 are overwhelmingly in favour of remaining in the EU. But Corbyn and his acolytes won’t budge.

But Labour’s fence-sitting on Brexit is ultimately a sideshow. The Conservative Party has been in power for nearly a decade, and the buck—or the ever-shaky pound—ultimately stops with them for the ongoing Brexit fiasco.

And the race within the Conservative Party to succeed May could yet radicalize public discourse further when it comes to Brexit. The Tory leadership contenders—of which there are currently seven—are engaged in a rhetorical arms race in the hope of persuading grassroots members of the Conservative Party (who are considerably older and more right-wing than the country at large) to vote for them. The rise of the newly constituted Brexit Party is playing a role similar to that of UKIP previously, encouraging Tory politicians to play to the hard-right.

So far, the Tory leadership contenders have threatened to shut down Parliament, offered tax cuts for the well-off, and proposed to give parents a veto over LGBT lessons in schools.

Rory Stewart, the secretary of state for international development, is the only candidate who could arguably be said to represent more mainstream conservative ideas. Stewart is offering the Conservative Party a platform that is—in his own words—“practical and possible.” Yet Stewart stands little chance among a Tory “selectorate” that wishes to drive through Brexit at almost any cost (as well as bring back hanging and fox hunting).

Britain’s two major political parties have been captured by activists and ideologues whose obsessions now dominate the Westminster news cycle. Tory thinking is being driven by Brexit hard-liners, whereas Labour is now firmly in the control of a political faction that believes the EU is a neoliberal plot. Perhaps it’s no wonder that the two parties have, in some polls, fallen to third and fourth place—behind the even more lunatic Brexit Party and the perennially ineffective Liberal Democrats.

Blame for this sorry state of affairs can be laid at the door of the two previous party leaders. Cameron looked at the festering sore of Euroskepticism within the Conservative Party and decided to pick at it. Meanwhile, in a bid to look tough against the trade unions, former Labour leader Ed Miliband opened the Labour Party up to every crank, extremist, and oddball with 3 pounds to spare.

This short-sightedness—each man hoped to quell internal dissent—has transformed their respective parties. But it has proven catastrophic for Britain, whose political destiny is now held hostage by the demands of opposing sets of political extremists.

James Bloodworth is an English journalist and writer. He is the author of Hired: Six Months Undercover in Low-Wage Britain.

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