The damage to the party could be severe, no matter what the referendum resultby Rachel Sylvester / May 19, 2016 / Leave a comment
Published in June 2016 issue of Prospect Magazine
Shortly before David Cameron stood up in the House of Commons to give his crucial statement to MPs on the Europe deal, one loyal former Cabinet minister sent a text message to the Prime Minister’s mobile phone. “Firm but gentle with colleagues,” it read. The Tory leader replied that he understood and would try to follow the advice. Within weeks, though, he was sneering at Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Conservative Eurosceptic MP, accusing him of spreading a “scare story” about the European Union, his furious manner a stark contrast to the calm courtesy of the pin-striped backbencher. It was just one sign of the increasingly poisonous mood within the Conservative Party ahead of the EU referendum on 23rd June.
As the campaign enters its final phase, Cabinet ministers are competing to contradict each other on television and radio. Political friendships are fracturing, discipline is breaking down, civility evaporating. The toxic issue of Europe is yet again spreading its venom through the Tory ranks. Although Britain is voting about whether to stay in the EU or leave, the future of the Conservative Party is also at stake, with some MPs privately questioning whether it can survive this shock to unity. “It’s pretty bad,” says one grandee. “What’s been shown is that feelings run very deep and when it’s over it will be very difficult. The Tory Party is tottering.”
The irony, of course, is that Cameron only ever called this referendum in an attempt to keep his party together in the face of a perceived Ukip threat. A senior Japanese businessman who has lived in London told an MP recently that the whole thing was “masturbation—it’s all to do with the Conservative Party not the country.” The leader who promised to stop the Tories “banging on about Europe” has created the conditions in which they are not only banging on about it, they are beating each other up over the issue too—in some cases almost literally. One minister says that an “Outer” tried to trip him up in the members’ lobby after he announced that he was backing “Remain.” Another blanked him, refusing to say goodnight. “There is a lot of anger especially among the older guard,” he says. “I’ve been surprised how quickly it’s become so divisive and how rancid the whole atmosphere is. The wounds are fetid because they go back a long way.”