PETER OBORNE: RIP the Tory Party? How rebel Conservative MPs risk destroying the most successful political organisation in history
RIP the Tory party? ‘The only beneficiary, of course, would be Jeremy Corbyn’
When David Cameron announced the Brexit referendum almost six years ago, his main objective was to end, once and for all, Conservative Party divisions over Europe.
I’m afraid we never needed hindsight to tell us that it was a catastrophic misjudgement. For Tory divisions over Europe seem insoluble. It has now fallen to the embattled Theresa May to stop the Tories falling apart.
Even if — and against all odds — the Commons votes in favour of her EU withdrawal deal on Tuesday, Tory wounds will continue to fester.
But, much worse, if the PM is defeated, the Conservative Party faces imminent civil war.
An organisation which has been the most successful political party in the world since its foundation in 1834, may formally split — into a hardline anti-EU group and a more pro-EU side.
Of course, history tells us that there have been occasional schisms in the past, most notoriously when Prime Minister Robert Peel attempted to abolish the Corn Laws, which protected British farmers from overseas competition.
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That debacle meant the Tories were out of power for a generation — with the great Victorian Liberal, William Gladstone, the beneficiary.
It is no exaggeration to say the current crisis is so grave we could soon be witnessing the death of the Conservative Party.
Let me explain the sequence of events that could lead to this.
Although I wrote in Wednesday’s Mail that Mrs May and her deal mustn’t be written off, it is important to consider the dire consequences of a defeat on Tuesday.
Inevitably, the first challenge to her authority would come from Jeremy Corbyn, who as leader of the Opposition would be entitled to put down an instant vote of no confidence in Mrs May’s Government.
If she lost that vote, she would be out of Downing Street within hours, and Britain would face a third General Election in as many years.
After the shambolic way the Tory Government failed to deliver Brexit, as demanded by the British people, the most likely result would be a Labour victory, as voters punished the Tories.
However, my guess is that Mrs May would win a vote of confidence in the Commons. Her backbenchers would finally come to their senses and support her — mostly out of fear of losing their jobs in a general election rout.
Having seen off Corbyn, the next move for Houdini May would be to go to Brussels to explain to the leaders of the other 27 countries that they must offer concessions in order to get her deal approved in Westminster.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn speaks at the annual meeting of the Party of European Socialists in Lisbon, Portugal on Friday
But Brussels feels it has done its bit. Many European leaders believe they have made too many concessions to the UK already.
And they have their own problems — such as the riots in Paris — to deal with.
However, any concessions would most likely concern the so-called Northern Ireland backstop, which guarantees friction-less trade between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic.
Of course, Mrs May would hope she could winkle out enough agreements to allow her to win the Commons vote on her exit deal a second time around.
In which case, her leadership would survive and Britain would break relatively smoothly from the EU in March.
But let’s suppose her deal gets struck down for a second time by MPs. Mrs May’s authority would be shattered. Her flagship policy would be sunk and Britain would be rudderless.
It would be at this point that a Conservative Party split would be most likely.
‘Even if a Brussels-baiter such as Boris Johnson (pictured) or Jacob Rees-Mogg were reluctantly made second choice by Tory MPs, either man would be the darling among Conservative Party members’
With her deal rejected by politicians (never forget, over the heads of the British public), Mrs May could try to appeal directly to voters in defiance of MPs and call a General Election.
In effect, this would be a single-issue vote of confidence in her own personal leadership and her EU withdrawal deal.
I have no doubt that millions of Britons who admire Mrs May for her fighting qualities would back her.
But such a course would cause utter havoc in the Conservative Party. The fact is that more than 100 Tory MPs have already indicated they regard Mrs May’s deal as a sell-out to Brussels.
Some of those might quit the party and fight the election as independents.
Probably some Tory Remainers would resign, too, feeling that the PM’s deal betrays their Europhile values. Others, showing shameless personal vanity, would abandon a weakened Mrs May and exploit the opportunity to promote their own leadership ambitions.
In sum, the Tory Party would be split asunder.
The only beneficiary, of course, would be Jeremy Corbyn.
Fully aware herself of this scenario, I am convinced that Mrs May would eschew calling a General Election.
Michael Gove and Amber Rudd leave crucial Brexit talks at 10 Downing Street on Thursday
Another option, facing this mess, would be a second referendum. Pressure is mounting, and I can understand why. But if Mrs May agreed to hold one, there would definitely be a Tory mutiny.
Whatever happens in the coming days and weeks, Britain is about to plunge into the most scary week in its post-war history.
Unless Mrs May wins on Tuesday, we are faced with stark choices: a lame duck prime minister; months of political paralysis; a challenger to Mrs May as Tory leader; or a Corbyn government.
Let’s consider that there is a move to oust Mrs May before Christmas.
Certainly, Tory infighting would escalate into civil war.
When Mrs May became PM in the summer of 2016, she was appointed unopposed.
All mooted rival candidates — such as Boris Johnson, Andrea Leadsom and Michael Gove — dropped out.
This time, I predict there would be plenty of challengers — representing all shades of opinion — and the Tory Party would quickly self-destruct.
Jacob Rees-Mogg sips from a cup of tea at a meeting of the pro-Brexit European Research Group last month
Crucially, hardline Brexiteers know the party’s leadership election rules work in their favour.
A series of hustings between rival candidates would see Tory MPs reducing the number to two, and then a winner would be chosen based on a vote of all members.
The fact is that any hardline Brexiteer would be the favourite, simply because the Tory grassroots are overwhelmingly Eurosceptic.
Even if a Brussels-baiter such as Boris Johnson or Jacob Rees-Mogg were reluctantly made second choice by Tory MPs, either man would be the darling among Conservative Party members.
But a hardline Brexiteer Tory Party led by Johnson or Rees-Mogg would see dozens of MPs quitting.
There would be mass defections, too, if, on the other hand, a Remainer won the contest.
The brutal truth is that there is no common ground any more between Europhile and Eurosceptic Tory MPs.
And so the moment looms when the two factions will find themselves incapable of living alongside each other in the same political party.
Thus the choice faced by Conservative MPs on Tuesday is not simply whether to accept Mrs May’s deal.
It is about the survival or destruction of the Conservative Party.
A symbol of how far some areas of modern politics have degraded can be seen in the behaviour of the government whips.
Instead of working overtime to help Mrs May win Tuesday’s Commons vote, they have been revelling in their starring role in this week’s fly-on-the wall ITV programme about their work. Whips ought to maintain a discreet dignity rather than parade themselves in front of TV cameras.
This isn’t pretty, Priti!
Hardline Brexiteer Priti Patel MP wants the Cabinet to blackmail the Irish Government into backing down over its intransigence towards Mrs May, using the threat of food shortages.
For Ireland is heavily dependent on trade with the UK, with Britain accounting for 29 per cent of its imports. Ms Patel’s suggestion is not just stupid politics but most inappropriate. Using food shortages as a bargaining chip is morally obscene considering that one million Irish died in the Great Famine between 1845 and 1849.
Three cheers for Lib Dem MP Stephen Lloyd for showing admirable integrity by quitting his party’s parliamentary group in order to support Mrs May’s Brexit proposals.
Unlike his Lib Dem colleagues, he’s honouring the promise they made during the 2017 election campaign.
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