Alastair Meeks: How the Eurosceptics are destroying the Conservative party

Alastair Meeks: How the Eurosceptics are destroying the Conservative party


Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.  By that definition, the Eurosceptic right of the Conservative party is insane.

It’s not as if we haven’t been here before.  In the mid-1990s, a cell of dissident Conservative MPs contrived to make government with a small majority a living hell for their nominal party superiors, challenging the government on a succession of grievances (real and imagined) relating to Britain’s membership of the EU.  By the end of that government, the Conservative party looked bereft of purpose, direction and values.  It suffered its worst defeat in the era of universal suffrage.

The Conservatives spent the years from 1997 to 2005 obsessing about the EU, much to the voters’ bafflement.  In 2001 William Hague declared that we had 24 hours to save the pound.  The voters shrugged, ignored his warnings and gave Labour pretty much the same majority that they got in 1997. (Sterling has had a sufficiently long afterlife from the Conservative diagnosis that it was in intensive care to find itself the centre of an entirely different political dispute with the SNP, suggesting that not all wild Eurosceptic scare stories have a secure basis in reality).

Undeterred by the lack of traction this electoral strategy yielded with the voters, the Conservatives decided to replace William Hague not with a Cabinet minister of 30 years’ experience but with a complete non-entity whose views were sounder on the subject of the EU.  Astonishingly, the general public were not won over by this strategy.  The Conservatives replaced him with an eminence grise with Eurosceptic views who found out at the 2005 election that the public still weren’t thinking what the Conservatives were thinking.

After that defeat, the Conservatives regrouped.  They chose as leader a man who recognised that they needed to stop banging on about Europe and start talking about things that the public actually cared about.  They returned to power at the next election.  Correlation is not causation, of course.  But still.

The Conservatives won the election outright last year, having made a manifesto promise to hold a referendum on EU membership.  You can be reasonably sure right now that David Cameron currently wishes that he hadn’t been obliged to honour it.  Far from receiving the thanks of those who had passionately campaigned for it, they are now outraged that he holds a different opinion from them and is voicing it.

We have already seen the development once again of a party within a party.  Whenever there is a rebellion to be had, names such as David Davis, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Bernard Jenkin and Philip Hollobone are usually in the mix. Quicker than anyone else, the alienated right grasped that the Conservatives’ majority of 12 gives them a chokehold over difficult decisions.  Like their predecessors the Maastricht rebels, they are using it to embarrass the party leadership on populist topics even when they go to the heart of the governmental process of setting a budget.  Their ingratitude is astonishing.

Whatever Iain Duncan Smith’s motivations for resigning from the Cabinet and attacking the foundation statements of the government (others are more charitable to his motives than I am), it is hard to credit that he would have resigned at this point if George Osborne and he had been on the same side in the referendum.

We are told by anonymous Leaver Conservative MPs that a challenge to David Cameron’s leadership after the referendum result is a certainty, whichever side wins.  To any outsider to the party, this is baffling.  David Cameron is by far the most considerable politician in any party, is one that the public respect and is able to reach out beyond his party to voters who would not automatically see themselves as Conservatives.  He has honoured his commitment to offer a referendum and to allow Conservative MPs up to and including Cabinet minister rank to campaign on either side.  None of his mooted replacements has a fraction of the authority or ecumenical reach that he has.  He is in any case planning to stand down in due course. Far from conspiring to knife him, they should be begging him to stay.

If, of course, implementing Conservative party policy is what motivates them.  But it isn’t.  One of the original Maastricht rebels from the 1990s, Nick Budgen, described their state of mind then: “It would be my general feeling that the transference of power to Europe was so important a matter as to require a vote against any organisation and any party that wished to transfer that power.”  Sound familiar?  Except the Eurosceptics have vastly upgraded their ambitions. We are fast reaching the point where some Conservative MPs will only accept a leader who is a Leaver, regardless of the result of the referendum.

To achieve their long term aim of leaving the EU, these MPs are willing to trash their own party’s record and to render it ungovernable.  They calculate that they can scorch the earth, get their own man or woman in as leader and then convert the party into UKIP-MAX.  They ignore only three things:

  • It’s very questionable whether the balance of the Parliamentary party sees this as the same priority that they do.
  • It’s still more questionable whether the voting public will collude in this ambition to institutionalise Brexit as the paramount priority of the party of government; the Conservatives may well be facing opponents far more difficult to demonise than Jeremy Corbyn.
  • A guerrilla minority of wet Conservative MPs could undermine a Leaver Conservative government just as effectively as the hardline Leaver Conservatives are undermining this government.

In pressing their ambition to make the Conservatives the party of Leave at all costs, the hardline Leavers risk making the Conservative party ungovernable even if they succeed.  As in the mid-1990s, the Conservative party already risk again looking bereft of purpose, direction and values.  It would be insane to expect a different result.  Bet accordingly.

Alastair Meeks

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