Such a split is unlikely, of course, far fetched. The bonds of loyalty and history, friendship and fetes that hold the party together at its grassroots are too strong to be weakened by a merely ideological dispute. Yet the possibility of a split and the case for one can no longer be ignored.
The obvious but far from accurate parallel is the role played by the breakaway Social Democratic Party in provoking Labour to embark upon its still incomplete modernisation. There is intense dispute about how influential the SDP was in Labour's evolution. Yet one thing is clear. The SDP was hugely productive: many of the new ideas it spawned have been taken up by new Labour. A Euro-sceptic rump party split off from the Tories would pour poison over European integration, but deliver no new ideas that would help a Tory revival.
No, the case for a split is not based on the ideological ferment it would create. It is much simpler than that: as it stands the Tory party is increasingly unable to govern effectively. It is this theme - governability - that links the modern Tory party with the Labour Party in the late 1970s. The main issue facing the Labour Party then was whether it ran the country or whether power was really in the hands of the unions. Now the issue that tortures the Tories is also about who governs. "Is Britain run from Whitehall or from Brussels?" ask the Eurosceptics. Instead of Jack Jones and Hugh Scanlon emerging from Transport House to lay down their demands, we have Sir James Goldsmith conspiring with John Redwood at the Dorchester Hotel in Park Lane.
Labour's inability to give a credible answer to the question in the late Seventies sank it for more than a decade; the same fate awaits the Conservatives. Of course, Mr Major would not agree. Yesterday in his speech to the Institute of Directors he made yet another attempt to square the circle. His pitch was to offer a new way to be a Eurosceptic. Mr Major rejects Euroscepticism of tone. He wants to sound Europhile in general, stressing that there is no chance of Britain withdrawing from Europe.
But he hopes there is a way of combining this Europhile tone with a Euroscepticism about the details of policy. On this he may well be right: the case for reform of the Common Fisheries Policy is huge; the case for joining a single currency finely balanced. All legislation emerging from Brussels should be gone through with a fine-tooth comb. Yet where Mr Major is wrong is to believe it is also possible to be a Eurosceptic about EU institutions. It is impossible to reconcile a pro-European tone with opting out of vital decision-making committees on social policy, for instance.
Eventually the circle always refuses to be squared. That is what the Eurosceptics, in their simplistic world, understand and that is why they will continue to undermine the Tory party's ability to govern.
Of course all this may pass. Sir James's Referendum Party may well be peaking too soon. But at the moment it is difficult to see how the Conservative Party will get beyond this ideological impasse on Europe and so reassert its credentials as a party capable of stability in government. That is why an open split must be a distant and drastic but serious possibility.Reuse content