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Brexit: is a Tory split now imminent?

11th March 2019

‘There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don't know we don't know.’

Donald Rumsfeld


We have just days to go until, in theory, we leave the EU. And as the clock continues to slowly grind down towards that moment, the UK, EU and even the world are yet to see what it means in practice. Whilst the referendum vote has dominated British politics for years, the debate about Britain’s role in Europe has dominated – and sometimes dogged - the Conservative Party for much longer. Talk of splits, splinter groups, and defections have intensified. Will Brexit, which was arguably conceived within the Conservatives, kill off this political force once and for all?


A disastrous election campaign, resignations, defections, votes of no confidence, an embarrassing Party Conference, humiliating defeats. This government has faced it all. Amid episodes that would normally unleash uncontrollable powers to force a change of Prime Minister or even another General Election, this government lumbers on. Even the polls suggest the Conservatives still have a worthy lead over the Opposition. Let’s just hope the PM doesn’t decide to go walking in Wales anytime soon.


Some say it is because the country cannot stomach another election. Some say that the government just needs to get Brexit done so that it can focus on the domestic agenda. For others, yet more uncertainty with a change of government is the last thing the country needs – besides, what happens if an election only delivers a result similar to the last? Whatever the reason, the government has endured.


More recently we have seen an increase in heated disputes between one side of the Conservative Party against the other. Sibling rivalries being battled out over Twitter. But we have seen public spats before. Under Thatcher, we had the Wets. Major, the B*stards. Hague, the Portillistas. One side of the Party pushes the other. They push back. But the family remains together.


May has clearly sought to try and keep all sides of the Brexit divide together. Like the Colossus of Rhodes, the PM has tried to straddle both the Brexit and Remain camps of the Party and in the country. But what happens if that divide is just too cavernous to bridge? Will that be enough to break the Conservatives?


Whatever groups you bracket MPs into, it is likely that Parliament will this week vote to kill off the so-called No Deal scenario (if given the chance to do so). In that circumstance, with no clear way through, May’s deal having suffered yet another defeat, and the extension of A50 looking likely, there could be an effort to bring in a vote on a Norway Plus version of Brexit.


There are already reports that some in the government, from the more Remain side, support this position should the PM’s deal not go through, and the Leader of the Opposition has talked to the proponents of this scheme. One could argue that there could be sufficient parliamentary numbers for this version of Brexit to force the government’s hand.


Some Brexiteers may even decide to back the Norway option – to them we would no longer actually be a member of the EU. From that position, the UK can keep pushing against the EU monolith to get to where it wants to be. Mission accomplished. Simples.


For others however, we would remain within the EU’s orbit, we would take on the bulk of EU rules without a seat at the table (becoming a so called ‘vassal state’) and most crucially, we would maintain freedom of movement.


Opposition to Norway isn’t just confined to Brexiteers. Many of those who want to remain in the EU do not support Norway Plus. But when there isn’t a clear way forward in breaking this Brexit impasse, when the PM needs to find a majority for a position – any position – when the EU isn’t budging on the negotiations, could this be the moment that the Conservatives finally splinter?


I want to tell myself that the Conservative Party has been through challenges in its past. That the most successful political party in Western Europe, like the T1000, constantly morphs and reshapes to fight its nemesis. Yet I do increasingly get a sense that the Conservatives will be in difficult territory if its leadership backs Norway. And let’s say that it becomes the position of the government, and that only a handful of MPs do resign in protest. One can legitimately say that there have been defections in the past, these things happen. So, who cares? I would worry in taking that simplistic view. The Parliamentary Party is only the tip of the iceberg. For me, the real concern is not just the reaction of Conservative MPs, but that of the mass membership. In there you find thousands of activists, envelope stuffers, donors, canvassers, Councillors. In this heated period in our country’s history it is probably right to take many things with a pinch of salt. But when the bulk of the Party’s membership is more inclined to supporting Brexit and when Nigel Farage is declaring that 100,000 activists are ready to support a new Brexit Party should Brexit not happen, one should worry. Some from the more remain side in the Conservatives may say that the Party doesn’t need the more “Brexity” types in the Party. Indeed when members of the government start prodding people openly to join Farage’s new group I do worry. Equally, I worry when any side of the Conservatives entices another to join a different political party. A strong army needs strong numbers. And it needs every rank to be actively supportive.


Without refighting the battles of yesteryear, I remain hopeful that legitimate changes to the current deal on offer happen, that the deal is then supported, and that we can all focus on the battles ahead, from the big international challenges to tackling crime, creating new jobs, and investing in our public services. The Conservatives are at their best when they have a bold, optimistic, and powerful vision for the future of the country.


As ever in this prolonged debate, we are all – across the country – dogged by ‘we don’t know’. We don’t know how this will end. We don’t know when this will end. Perhaps – worryingly – we don’t even know if it will end (it certainly feels that way). This is unchartered territory. This is a known unknown.


Ben Gascoigne, Director

Grayling Team

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