War has been declared between factions in the SNP over Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon’s strained relationship, although let’s face it, the nationalists are mere apprentices compared to the grand masters of political backstabbing: the Conservative and Unionist Party.
As long as it has existed, right back to when the King’s cavaliers in Parliament were first branded as ‘Tories’ by their Whig opponents, there has been skulduggery afoot.
This week it has been no different. On Europe, which has divided the Conservatives ever since the UK joined the European Economic Community in 1973, there is still no harmony. Indeed there is a real possibility of rupture as competing camps exercise their influence and try to win over the Prime Minister.
It is difficult to see how, within the next month, a number of its MPs have not only resigned from the Cabinet but possibly left the party altogether. The scale of the breach will depend on which MPs are forced to consider their allegiance and what routes of rebellion are open to them.
When it comes to decision-making, Theresa May has made kicking the can further down the road her specialism. It could be her subject of choice were she to appear on Mastermind; but eventually she must run out of road and face the tougher and more unpredictable general knowledge round. Finally, after needless and counterproductive delay, she put her Withdrawal Agreement to the test and it was rejected by the largest vote against a Government policy in British history. She now must come back to the Commons on Monday and lay a motion stating what she proposes to do. It must upset one of two groups in her cabinet, and from that there is likely to be casualties.
May’s options are limited; if she comes back to the Commons with nothing substantially new after speaking to opposition parties then her Withdrawal Agreement will be defeated again. If she chooses to move the EU departure date of 29 March by seeking an extension of Article 50 she will need the unanimous permission of the other 27 member states – and she has been told that will only happen if she is willing to make further concessions to them (including undoubtedly further pro rata membership payments). The sort of concession required might be staying in the Single Market (like Norway) but also in the Customs Union (called Norway Plus) which must mean putting the UK under the jurisdiction of the European Courts of Justice.
Any concession on the Customs Union membership and ECJ oversight will make it difficult for half a dozen MPs including the likes of Andrea Leadsom, Liam Fox, Liz Truss, and Penny Mordaunt to remain in the Cabinet. Even the party chairman Brandon Lewis has been reported as warning against Customs Union membership. Seeking a delay in leaving could also be precipitous. Not all of these people are members of the more devout Brexiteers in the European Research Group, which numbers around seventy.
In contrast there is a gang of five ministers; Philip Hammond, David Gauke, Amber Rudd, Greg Clarke and David Mundell who have all made it clear that leaving the EU without an agreed divorce settlement – incorrectly branded “No Deal” – would be a resigning matter. They would all rather remain in the EU, but having failed to win the public’s support in the referendum they want at the very least to have the leaving date put back, with preferably a new departure agreement resembling either the Norway model or as close to full membership as possible.
Some, such as Rudd, have been hinting at supporting a second referendum. Behind them are a further dozen or so backbenchers, making about 20 MPs in all, including the likes of Dominic Grieve, Anna Soubry, Ken Clarke, Oliver Letwin and Sarah Wollaston. Soubry has already threatened twice to leave the party and others could follow her.
Then there is the problem of the European elections. If there is an extension of Article 50 and EU membership goes beyond May then the UK should legally take part, even though the UK’s 73 seats have been reallocated to the other 27 countries. The Tories and Labour would feel obliged to take part but likely take a pasting from either a rejuvenated UKIP or a new Farage-led party.
Also divisions in Scotland
As for the Conservatives in Scotland – they too were divided this week, with three of the 13 rebelling against the government and others sorely tempted but willing to give May the benefit of the doubt. It is unlikely, however, that any would leave the party.
With such divisions to contend with and no overall majority Theresa May has been trying to satisfy everyone, but that must in the end prove impossible.
Although the Europhiles are relatively small in number they include some that occupy important positions – Chancellor Hammond being the obvious example – but everyone is expendable. Chancellors have been sacked or forced out in the past (think Nigel Lawson in 1989). With no road left will May be brave enough to hold out for leaving on the 29 March and risking Cabinet resignations and even party resignations?
It could ultimately mean losing a confidence motion and bring about an early general election – although Soubry et al would not then be able to stand as Conservative candidates and could be expected to lose their seats.
It’s my belief any schism should be containable and could possibly strengthen the party so long as it remains in tune with the public mood of getting Brexit over and done with and moving on to the bread and butter issues that politicians are expected to deal with.