The Conservative Party is no stranger to internal division, particularly over Europe. It has been the downfall of many a Conservative prime minister. But the last few weeks have been some of the most divisive it has ever experienced.
Ministers have resigned from government, or threatened to resign from government. MPs have crossed the floor to join the opposition benches. The divisions extend from the very top, right down to the grassroots.
Dominic Grieve faces deselection by his local party for his continued obstructionist stance to the prime minister’s deal. Fellow Remainer Nick Boles resigned from the party last night, blaming the prime minister’s refusal to compromise, and is also facing the threat of deselection by his constituency party.
At the start of Tuesday’s marathon session, the Cabinet looked increasingly fragile. Some ministers had threatened to quit in the event of a no-deal Brexit; others had urged the PM not to agree to the customs union plan favoured by Remainers.
May’s decision to finally compromise and make an appeal for negotiation to Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, after weeks of steadfastly refusing to budge an inch, marks a realisation that she cannot intimidate parliament into agreeing the deal simply by edging the UK closer to the no-man’s land of no-deal Brexit.
But is her capitulation enough to prevent the Conservative party from imploding?
The problem for the prime minister is that she has been caught between two institutions (her party and parliament) for the past few months. At the heart of this is the compromise approach on the future relationship pushed by a majority of opposition MPs, set against the ERG group within the Conservative Party who have stuck by their interpretation of the 2016 referendum results to push for a harder Brexit.
Until today, the prime minister has been led by the ERG throughout the Brexit process, whether it be accepting amendments during the passage of early Brexit legislation or her offer to resign ready for the next stage of negotiations. Tuesday marked the first time that she has put parliament before the Eurosceptic wing of the Conservative Party.
It’s not just the ticking Brexit clock that has forced her to do this. It’s probably also the realisation that even if she can guarantee the support of the DUP, losses from her party mean that the government’s parliamentary majority has dwindled to just a handful of MPs.
As May noted in her statement on Tuesday night, parliament’s agreement on the withdrawal agreement and on the future relationship is not the end of the story; MPs (and peers) will also need to scrutinise the Withdrawal Agreement Bill by 22 May if the UK is to avoid having to participate in the European parliamentary elections.
That means surviving a whole new series of votes and seeing off a swathe of amendments from unhappy MPs. If the ERG sought to frustrate the prime minister they could still make life very difficult for her at these stages in the Commons.
We don’t yet have a timetable for May’s departure, but she will want her successor to have some semblance of a party in tow when they take over. Bringing the party back together will be no easy task, so May will need to focus on not making existing divisions any stronger.
Finishing the job of Brexit will be key here, but the difficulty remains that compromising with Corbyn and going down what would appear to be the customs union or common market 2.0 option, with or without a confirmatory referendum, risks driving away angry ERG members.
May’s calculation may be that her planned departure will have Brexiteers licking their lips, eager to reshape Brexit in their image once she is out of the way, and therefore willing to grit their teeth and stick around while May tries to get a softer Brexit over the line.
But her new strategy also risks alienating the more Eurosceptic grassroots of the Conservative party. Polling has shown repeatedly that party members were unhappy with May’s deal and, unlike the Commons majority, they were not averse to no deal.
The prime minister has always been treading a narrow path between the two camps, but it may be that in pursuing the softer Brexit sought after by the opposition, she pushes those members away from the party at the next general election, possibly into the hands of Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party.
Louise Thompson is a senior lecturer in politics at the University of Manchester
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