It will be years before we can fully account for the impact Brexit has had on the country, but the grave damage it has done to the Conservative Party is already clear. The only question is whether it’s fatal or not.
Europe has been causing the Tories difficulties for over 30 years. The anti-EU wing of the party has grown considerably in strength since the early 1990s, when the small group of oddball Maastricht rebels made John Major’s life a misery. Four Conservative prime ministers in a row were brought down by the issue—until Boris Johnson, who brought himself down. A Remain victory in the 2016 referendum would not have put an end to these difficulties, as Farage would have kept on harrying away from the right. The party would have probably plodded along though, split on the issue, perhaps indulging in a cathartic row or two—but holding together.
Leave’s victory changed the equation. Theresa May attempted to apply old-school Tory pragmatism to negotiate a deal and get it through her divided party. She came unstuck, though, because pragmatism couldn’t deliver the future that her more ideological colleagues had imagined. Johnson won because he had no compunction in offering the impossible, which he then duly failed to deliver. Indeed, he ended up essentially accepting the Northern Ireland protocol that the EU wanted in the first place.
Johnson could have accepted the protocol straight away on assuming office, but he calculated correctly that he needed the theatrics of a big fight with the EU—and the threat of a no-deal scenario—to give the impression that his agreement was a triumph. This was probably the only way to make Brexit happen and to win the subsequent election—but with Dominic Cummings in charge of the strategy, they went way over the top.
In particular, the decision to expel senior MPs who rebelled against Johnson was a fateful one. Some, like David Gauke, Rory Stewart and Dominic Grieve, never had the whip restored so couldn’t stand for the Tories in the 2019 general election. The pragmatic wing of the party that had balanced the right was wrecked. Other moderates, like Amber Rudd and Nick Boles, quit the party of their own accord; yet others, like May’s deputy David Lidington, quietly stood down. The large new 2019 intake of MPs unbalanced the party even more, being almost all fervent Leavers and—in some cases, like the new Workington MP, Mark Jenkinson—former members of Ukip.
This summer’s leadership election has made the consequences of this unbalancing clear. No candidate came close to suggesting that a compromise with the EU might be necessary; those who elicited the faintest suspicion of not being fully signed up to the Brexit cause, like Tom Tugendhat, had no chance. Only those who’d backed Brexit from the start, like Rishi Sunak and Penny Mordaunt, or were zealous converts to it, such as Liz Truss, could make it through. The membership, also denuded of the Gauke types, ended up supporting the candidate who was most loyal to Johnson and most determined not to acknowledge reality.
The huddle of remaining Tory pragmatists are in despair
Truss’s initial support within the party came almost entirely from the group of politicians who would never have had any relevance without Brexit. This includes longstanding proponents of leaving the EU like Jacob Rees-Mogg, but also figures such as David (now Lord) Frost who, like Truss, switched his position on seeing a career opportunity.
This is why the fight with Sunak was so bitter. He represented such a threat to the Truss support group precisely because he backed Leave—and was supported by other true believers like Dominic Raab and, belatedly, Michael Gove. Having seen him off, the Truss gang are ascendant. But that means a Cabinet packed with politicians who would have been nowhere near high office without Brexit, at a time when talent and competence are badly needed.
The huddle of remaining Tory pragmatists are in despair. If the coming years play out as they fear, many will leave politics at the next election. There may even be some defections. Meanwhile Truss risks being trapped—not just by events, but by the opportunists who have helped her reach the premiership. Few have any personal loyalty to her. Like Johnson, she is a vehicle for their ambitions and will be discarded the moment she becomes a liability. She has the added problem that Johnson is not hiding his belief that he should still be in office.
Governments always run out of energy, and when they do there’s always speculation that the party will never recover. We saw it with the Tories in 1997; and with Labour after 1979, and again in 2010. Ultimately our majoritarian system has ensured that they eventually do revive and win again, and that could well happen this time. But there is a difference today, because the parliamentary party has changed so drastically. Recently, Cummings tweeted that the Tories were “too rancid to be saved” and that “2023-24 is about Carthaginian treatment for Tory Party, ploughed into earth with salt, and its REPLACEMENT.” The man who did so much to put the Conservatives in this position may get his wish.