Not for the first time in its modern history, the Conservative party stands at a crossroads. It is again tearing itself apart over the explosive issue of Europe. Long-standing internal divisions have been heightened by the UK’s impending departure from the European Union, and prime minister Theresa May faces an ominous scenario. Like previous Conservative leaders, she could be ejected from office over a deep-rooted ideological dispute about Europe.
But that’s not to say May’s own MPs biting at her heels are in a particularly strong position either. They might be unhappy with the status quo, but they don’t appear to have a coherent or united strategy for moving forward. They also know that excessive opposition could actually bring their own government down.
Divisions laid bare
Pro-European backbencher Anna Soubry has brought the tensions to the fore by urging May to boot out the estimated 35 “hard, ideological Brexiteers” among Tory MPs. She claims this group wields undue influence over the party’s Brexit stance. She also alluded to past Conservative prime ministers John Major and David Cameron, who were severely damaged by this issue, adding that neither stood up to this particular anti-EU faction while in office.
It’s this contextual backdrop that makes the ongoing negotiations with the European Union so dangerous for May. As her government engages with EU officials for the next round of crucial Brexit negotiations, she finds herself stuck between a rock and a hard place.
On one side, the eurosceptics are in dogged pursuit of a hard Brexit. On the other, europhiles seek a softer, more moderated departure from the EU. Faced with such polarised opposites, May has virtually zero room for flexible manoeuvre to deliver the kind of Brexit of her personal choosing.
The prolonged nature of Brexit discussions, plus her inability to offer a precise vision of Britain’s key demands and future vision of life beyond the EU has led to growing speculation about her ongoing tenure in office.
Many of the more ardent Brexiteers have never fully trusted May on Europe. Now prominent Remainers in influential Cabinet positions – most notably chancellor Phillip Hammond and home secretary Amber Rudd – have provoked the anger of Brexiteers in recent weeks due to perceptions that they are actively depicting a gloomy and negative post-Brexit outcome.
Some ambitious rivals sense her weakened position and detect an opportunity for themselves. Encouraged by backbench supporters and sympathisers in the media, reports have emerged that Boris Johnson, Michel Gove and Jacob Rees-Mogg could emerge as a Brexit “dream team” to drive home the final stage of negotiations from a more committed and assertive position.
May has confirmed that Britain will be leaving the EU’s customs union after much speculation that the UK could possibly remain in a diluted or revised version beyond the Brexit date of March 2019. This followed mixed messages from her government and appears to have marked a departure from a more pragmatic position that May adopted previously. While this announcement has delighted the pro-Brexit lobby, it has created further anxiety for others, particularly as further predictions have emerged indicating the potentially negative economic impact of Brexit.
Such economic gloom is heightened by fears that the various global trade deals being pursued by May’s government will not generate the same degree of trade and economic growth as the EU’s single market and customs union they are set to replace.
The highly sensitive issue of Northern Ireland’s border also remains unresolved. May has been warned that a hard border will be inevitable if Britain does leave the customs union, and this would potentially destabilise the delicate peace process.
The stakes are therefore extremely high. May’s chances of political survival are now the subject of almost daily speculation.
But it’s all something of a catch-22 situation for Conservative Brexiteers. Removing the current prime minister could possibly set in motion a chain of events that could destabilise the entire Brexit process. It could also trigger a further general election. That, in turn, opens the possibility of Jeremy Corbyn entering 10 Downing Street. And none of that would ultimately resolve the long-running civil war over Europe within the party anyway.
This is indeed a sobering thought for Conservative Brexiteers. They are increasingly impatient with their leader’s stuttering EU departure strategy, yet remain undecided about how they would accelerate the delivery of a version of Brexit they truly support.