When Britain voted for Brexit, some senior Conservatives who had backed Remain were disappointed but not distraught. They were quick to spot a silver lining: at least the European issue, which had destroyed the premierships of the last three Tory prime ministers – Margaret Thatcher, John Major and now David Cameron – had been resolved, and so history could not repeat itself.
Now the same Tories are not so sure. The hardline Tory Europhobes won the battle of the referendum but are bitter about losing the war for control of a party now somehow led by a Remainer. In public, they are rallying round Theresa May. But in private, some are seething that Andrea Leadsom, the prominent Leave campaigner who withdrew from the Tory leadership election on Monday, was destroyed through “black ops” by May supporters. I don’t believe it – Leadsom destroyed herself, through lack of judgement and inexperience.
Ardent Europhobes, meanwhile, do not trust May to deliver “full Brexit” and are already demanding a “clean break” from the EU rather than a messy compromise. They see conspiracies around every corner and are worried that the Whitehall machine will capture the new Prime Minister and persuade her to water down Brexit.
I don’t believe that either. May will try to secure as much access as possible for British goods and services to the European single market, as she judges that in the national economic interest. But she believes the country has voted for tougher rules on EU migration and so, in the tricky EU negotiations that will dominate her first two years in Downing Street, she will have to give up some market access in return.
When May forms her Cabinet after taking office tomorrow, she knows the winners and losers will be labelled Remainers and Leavers by her MPs and the media – a reminder of how hard it will be to move on from such a divisive referendum. So she will promote some Leavers to senior jobs in the hope that her shake-up will be seen as a “reconciliation reshuffle”.
The trouble is that the Europhobes are never satisfied, as Cameron discovered to his cost. Toss them a bone and they demand a whole carcass. When we eventually leave the EU, as we will under May, they will probably say it should have happened sooner or that we should do it all again.
They do not forgive or forget. Some of Leadsom’s backers never trusted Major because he benefited from the act of regicide against their heroine Thatcher. They made his life hell by rebelling over the Maastricht Treaty. This is ominous for May who, as Major did, has a tiny Commons majority, which gives the Europhobes disproportionate clout. If they think she is backsliding on Brexit, they will create May-hem.
Although May’s unexpectedly swift election as Tory leader provides some stability in turbulent times, it would have been better for May to have defeated Leadsom in a ballot of Tory members, leaving the hardliners with fewer grudges to bear. There is a parallel: some Blairites believe it would have been much better if Tony Blair had beaten Gordon Brown in a Labour leadership contest in 1994. Instead, Brown’s decision to stand aside allowed him to nurse his grievance for years as he tried to secure his inheritance as Blair’s successor.
To make matters worse, the Europhobes are right-wing, social conservatives who will view with suspicion May’s pragmatic, centre-ground pitch and her “popular capitalism” proposals to rein in big business. They had hoped that Cameron’s resignation would kill his modernising, socially liberal agenda and now have to live with a PM who backed him on gay marriage and who, as their chairman, told them they were seen as “the nasty party”. In this era of topsy-turvy politics, May may discover that her party still has a nasty side.
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