The Conservative Party was once seen as Europe’s best-oiled political machine. But Brexit and Theresa May have turned it into a smoldering wreck. Now, the party faces the dire prospect of EU elections.
Phillip Lee was on his way to parliament last week when a man suddenly appeared in front of him. He was apparently furious and seemed to be screaming, but Lee had his headphones in: He was listening to one of his favorite songs, Stevie Wonder’s “He’s Misstra Know-It-All.” It was only after he removed his earbuds that he realized he was being called a traitor. Nothing out of the ordinary, really. Indeed, Lee has almost grown used to it.
These days, he gets emails nearly every day calling him an turncoat and a disgrace to the country. People are demanding that he leave the party that he has been a part of for 27 years, and their furious passion has led him to install panic buttons in his London apartment to call for help in case of an emergency. His crime? Pushing for a soft Brexit. That has been enough to turn Phillip Lee, 48, who represents Bracknell in parliament for the Conservative Party, into a target. “It’s a fucking nightmare,” he says.
And it’s far from being over.
Brexit, which was originally supposed to take place on Friday of last week, has gone into overtime. As things currently stand, it’s unclear if the extra period will last weeks, months or even years. But the longer the political war of attrition surrounding the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union continues, the more divided the country and its institutions will become.
That’s especially true of the Conservative Party of Theresa May, who is, at least for now, still the prime minister.
It was a small group of Conservatives, blinded by nationalism, that brought on the referendum in the first place. It is that same group that has also ensured that every attempt to bring Brexit to a conclusion — any conclusion, really — has failed miserably. Yet it was only on Tuesday evening, almost three years after the referendum, that Theresa May made her first desperate attempt to free herself from the hardliners by offering to meet with Labour to find a joint way out of the chaos.
It could very well be that May will be able to pull her country back from the brink at the very last second. But for her party, it may already be too late.
The Tories, long one of the best-oiled political machines in Europe, are on their way to total collapse. William Hague, a leader of the party, has warned that the situation is far worse now even than it was following the devastating election defeat against Tony Blair in 1997. “The ruin I moved into as the new leader was, at least, intact,” he has said.
The irony is difficult to miss. Ever since the tenure of Margaret Thatcher, Tory prime ministers have sought to assuage the party’s anti-EU voices by taking on many of their demands. But 30 years later, the Conservatives are more divided than ever. And Theresa May, who took the job after the brutal Brexit battle of 2016, has only made that gap wider.
It was May who — following the narrow referendum result — steered her country towards a hard Brexit, despite that being only one possible interpretation of the vote. In her first big speech, she announced the country would exit the common market, leave behind the customs union and throw out the many (EU) immigrants who were allegedly abusing the country’s social services.
Then, this woman — who has a weakness for pithy grandiloquence — backed herself into a rhetorical corner: “No deal is better than a bad deal,” she famously said.
In doing so, she emboldened both hardliners within her party and all nationalist Brits to not give up an inch to the EU during negotiations. It was the first shot fired in an unprecedented smear campaign against any Conservative who dared to push for a compromise between London and Brussels. The yellow press branded them “traitors” and “mutineers.”
A Party Re-Defined
One of the first to be confronted with unfiltered hatred was Anna Soubry, formerly the minister of state for small business. For a time, just walking into parliament for her was akin to running the gauntlet. She was — rather paradoxically — branded a “Nazi” by protesters and began receiving death threats. Her crime? She tried to work together with Labour MPs to find a Brexit solution that could gain majority approval. By late February, Soubry had had enough: Together with two other Tory women, she left the Conservative party and joined an independent group of former Labour lawmakers.
The three ex-Tories wrote a letter to May in which they argued: “Brexit has re-defined the Conservative Party — undoing all the efforts to modernize it.” Now the rebels want to register as a new party called “Change UK.”
These events clearly demonstrate that the battle over Brexit has the potential to change the British party landscape for the long term. Rarely have so many lawmakers been willing to turn their backs on their parties in such a short period of time. And never have the two major parties had to tolerate so much resistance and lack of party solidarity. Because of Brexit, the collapse of the de facto two-party system has now become a realistic outcome.
The Conservatives experienced another painful loss this week, when one of the party’s best-connected MPs, the maverick Nick Boles, announced he was leaving the party. Boles claims that May only ever tried to save her own party, and never put forward a responsible plan that would serve the entire country. That, he said, would have consequences. The Tories — a party that “did not really exist anymore,” he said — could expect several years in the opposition.
And if moderate Conservatives refused leave on their own accord, they would be forced out. Months ago, fervent EU opponents launched a campaign to strip Tories willing to compromise of their parliamentary mandates. “Deselect The Tory Traitors. The Time Is Now,” the Leave.EU website reads. The man behind the purported grassroots initiative is the controversial businessman Arron Banks, who supposedly donated close to 8 million pounds ($10.5 million) to the pro-Brexit campaign — the biggest political donation in British history. To this day, it remains unclear where the money came from. A British parliamentary investigation found numerous connections to banks in Russia, but no conclusive proof of external influence. Banks himself denies any such influence occurred.
Banks never stopped pushing for a hard break between the UK and the EU. He’s now using a tactic known among political scientists as “entryism,” a method favored historically by Trotskyists keen on taking over parties of the workers’ movement. In the British version, it works like this: Convinced Brexiteers should acquire Tory membership in targeted constituencies that are represented by EU-friendly MPs in British parliament. Once the balance of power in the local Tory branches have shifted, the new members are to organize a process to vote them out of power. Step-by-step instructions for such a move can be found on Banks’ website.
The rebels celebrated their first spectacular victory on Friday of last week in none other than Gerrards Cross at the foot of the tranquil Chiltern Hills. The constituency there has been represented for 22 years by Dominic Grieve, a conservative and old-school MP with a reputation, even among his political opponents, for being fair, friendly and guided by facts. During a raucous meeting at the local Crowne Plaza Hotel, which Grieve himself described as “slightly rowdy,” the 62-year-old was booed and called a “liar.” His offense: He considers Brexit to be wrong and argues the British should have a say in the final agreement with the EU.
In the end, Grieve was forced into a vote of confidence, which he lost by a clear majority. The vote was initiated by a man who had run against him for the right-wing UKIP party just two years ago. An astonished Grieve reported that around 100 people “I had certainly never seen” had showed up to the meeting. His fate as an MP now hangs by a thread.
Dozens of other level-headed conservatives could soon be confronted with similar maneuvers. It is likely no coincidence that the number of Conservative party members is increasing in electoral districts represented by EU-friendly MPs. Phillip Lee, too, reports the Tories in Bracknell have seen their ranks swell by 25 percent in the past nine months, and said, “I suspect that a majority of these people has the strong desire to get rid of me.”
The well-organized EU opponents hope to have recruited 25,000 Brits for the Tories by January. This would be a dramatic development for an aging party that until only recently had been steadily shrinking and currently has just over 120,000 members.
What has long since been the norm in London has expanded into the electoral districts. Party colleagues mercilessly wage war against one another, goaded by whispers, the source and interests of which cannot be individually identified. In the Tory party, which for centuries has tamped down internal conflicts in its pursuit of power, things have been turned upside-down. There is no leader in sight who could unify the quarreling mob.
Tory historian Tim Bale, a professor at Queen Mary University of London, speaks of the “worst crisis in the history of the Conservative Party.” The last time such a hopeless situation occurred, he says, was back in the 1920s, when the party fought bitterly over free trade. This time, however, the crisis is “both acute and chronic,” Bale argues — and with Theresa May, the party is headed by a leader in name only.
It’s doubtful whether May’s final Hail Mary attempt will get the situation under control. This week, immediately following May’s announcement that she would seek a Brexit solution with Jeremy Corbyn, many conservatives mounted rhetorical onslaughts against her, with hardliners about the fact that she had reached out to Corbyn, of all people — a man they have for years mocked as a socialist, terrorist apologist, anti-Semitic good-for-nothing. Brexit purists like Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg warned of Marxist influences. One group of up to 30 EU-haters that calls itself the “Spartans” — and has been described by moderates as “suicide bombers” — discussed whether it was time for the nuclear option: to overthrow May’s government with the help of the opposition.
The situation is so muddled that it hardly seems possible for a Brexit proposal with majority support to be found by next Wednesday, when EU leaders are scheduled to meet again. If no proposal can be agreed upon, May will have no choice but to apply for a very long postponement of her country’s exit from the EU — though she requested a shorter delay until June 30 on Friday. It seems unlikely, though, that EU leaders will grant that wish, and one possible outcome is a much longer delay, which would force her country to take part in EU elections one last time. It’s an outcome that May would like to avoid at all costs.
On Friday of last week in London, it became clear why May has reason to fear EU elections. The day was originally meant to be the day Britain left the EU, and thousands of people flocked to the parliament building to express their anger at the “House of Clowns.”
The dual-rally marked a closing of ranks between a Brexit campaign and the now far-right extremist UKIP party, which won the last EU elections with an astonishing 27 percent. Crowds in the usually courteous UK are rarely this angry, with protesters holding up signs claiming that democracy was dead because Brexit had not yet come to pass. Meanwhile, prominent EU-haters, including one Tory MP, unloaded their frustration onstage.
The crowd zealously greeted Nigel Farage, the former Brexit front man who once signaled his intention to retire from politics but is still very much around. Should the British once again have to vote in the EU elections, Farage has said he would lead the newly founded “Brexit Party,” an offshoot of UKIP.
The demonstration was taking place on “enemy territory,” Farage said, and maligned those who sat behind the walls of Westminster Palace as traitors. “Let me tell you, I will fight them!” he promised, while a few isolated shots of “Rule Britannia!” could be heard emanating from the crowd.
It was the unofficial prelude to an election campaign the likes of which Britain may never have seen. Things could get dirty, noisy and scurrilous. And it’s not hard to guess which party will be the first to fall victim to the mayhem.