The Conservatives’ Brexit division

About a week ago I did a post on my blog about the split over Europe in Labour and therefore thought it would be only fair to do an analysis of the divide that Mrs May faces in her party as well.

When examining Labour, I began by taking a look at the differences in opinions amongst the party’s membership. So, like anyone wanting to know what Tories are thinking, I took off to Conservative Home. Soon I found an article entitled: After this election result, support for a Second Referendum on Brexit is gaining ground. Many were incredibly hostile to the suggestion, stating, ‘no rerun and no backsliding, we need to get out as quickly as possible, deal or no deal.’ Others are clearly more pro-EU, as they explain, ‘as an EUphile, I find the thought of a closer relationship with the EU a good thing.’ The Conservative membership are – as they have always been – clearly split on the issue of Brexit.

May seems to have done a transformation from a Remain campaigner to a hard Brexit advocate. Whilst this may have appeased the right wing Conservatives and UKIP supporters, it also irritated many of the more central and more liberal Conservatives. On the day of the General Election I met one Tory who often stands for the County Council. They, however, were so frustrated by May’s uncompromising Brexit strategy that they voted Lib Dem instead. Admittedly the Conservatives had little chance of winning in what is a safe Labour seat, but clearly the Conservative coalition over Brexit is more shaky than they make out.

Such divides can also be found in the Conservative’s parliamentary party. Ken Clarke, who has always been ardently pro-European (arguably not becoming the leader of the Conservatives because of it), voted against the triggering of Article 50. He said in the House of Commons, in the Queen’s Speech debate:

I do find it rather odd that ostensibly the two front benches are agreed we’re going to leave the Single Market… When we received our instructions from the people – to use the kind of phrase which Eurosceptics are very fond of – in the referendum, I do not recall the question of leaving the Single Market and the Customs Union ever remotely being seriously raised.

As well as this, Anna Soubry (Conservative MP for Broxtowe) – as I said in my last post as well – openly attacked her party’s position on Brexit a couple of weeks ago:

My own front bench has to wake up and understand that things have now changed. The rhetoric has to be dropped. This slogan – “no deal is better than a bad deal” – is a nonsense. It’s always been a nonsense and the British people know it and that’s why they voted as they did on June 8th. Nobody likes somebody being very smart, but I am going to have to say this: I stood up in this place, on this spot, on two occasions and I warned honourable and right honourable friends on this side of the House of the dangers of ignoring the 48% and the young in particular

Former Conservative Prime Ministers have also been open about their concerns regarding the Government’s approach to Brexit so far:

Behind the diplomatic civilities, the atmosphere is already sour. A little more charm and a lot less cheap rhetoric would do much to protect the interests of the United Kingdom.

– John Major

Over Brexit, she is going to have to talk more widely, listen to other parties.

– David Cameron

There is clearly a feeling amongst many prominent members of the Conservative Party that May’s approach to Brexit is reckless and unfair. However, other Tory MPs and leading figures have been much more supportive of the Brexit option that May is aiming for. Peter Bone, Conservative MP and Leave campaigner, asked the Prime Minister in June:

I wonder if the Prime Minister has had the opportunity to see the British Attitudes Survey today, which stated that 75% of British people wanted to leave the EU, up 20% from last time. She will of course know that more than 80% of the British electorate voted for parties that want to leave the EU. She’ll also know from her extensive canvassing that thousands and thousands of people say the referendum decided the issue, just get on and leave the EU. And would she assure the House that she will make that her priority?

Notably May said that Mr Bone was ‘absolutely right’, a sentiment that would probably also be shared by the rather old-fashioned Jacob Rees-Mogg – the son of the former editor of The Times, MP for East Somerset and probably one of the most well-known politicians amongst those that use social media. In an interview, sitting next to Vince Cable, on Sky News, he remarked:

Brexit is actually surprisingly straight forward: it means that we’re leaving the European Union. That means leaving the Single Market, which is the major instrument of the European Union, and leaving the Customs Union.

Whilst some Tory backbenchers – such as Ken Clarke and Anna Soubry – proclaim the virtues of the Single Market and the Customs Union, others – including Peter Bone and Jacob Rees-Mogg – despise it. Could Theresa May’s approach to Brexit, which appeals much more to the likes of Bone and Mogg than Clarke and Soubry, see the broad church of the Conservative Party begin to crumble over Europe, just as it did for Thatcher, Major and Cameron?


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