The near future of British politics is unnervingly poised. The law as it stands is that Britain must leave the European Union on October 31st. This law can only be changed by another law, which requires a Parliamentary majority. Can this be accomplished by the Government’s many enemies? If the Conservative Party in the Commons holds together, no. But they have a majority of one over all other parties, and there are many Tories who threaten rebellion. Already there are 20 Tory signatories to a letter supporting Philip Hammond, the former Chancellor of the Exchequer who opposes a No-Deal Brexit. These unworldly folk believe that they have a credible threat to take into the divisions lobby. I doubt this, because they are setting themselves openly against Boris’s Government, and they are subject to party discipline. The Whips have a file on each MP that may well be superior to anything the KGB’s successors have on them. And this file can be activated if the Party leader thinks that the interests of State are genuinely under threat. To expect all of the Remainer class to have led wholesome lives of supernatural virtue is to ask more of human beings than they characteristically deliver. Discreet but painful pressure will be applied to those who are Not Sound.
To the dauntless 20 can now be added the four Tory former ministers who have welcomed Jeremy Corbyn’s plan to bring down the Government, making himself a caretaker Prime Minister—perhaps leading a Government of National Unity. This fanciful project is all part of the effort to stop a No-Deal Brexit, an outcome which the nation at large is content with. The LibDem leader has suggested a caretaker government led by Kenneth Clarke and Harriet Harman, “the Father and Mother of the House.” I cannot see a Mom & Pop leadership defeating a determined Government that knows it is in the terminal phase of the decades-long Conservative civil war. Still, with a majority of one—the same margin that brought down Prime Minister Callaghan in 1979—the Government is in no shape to defy the odds.
The Government will have to fend off in mid-September the Parliamentary gins, traps, mines, and assaults. If the Vauban fortress holds, we move into the party conference season of late September, a time when insurrections do not flourish. Party unity is the cry. Essentially, Boris has to do nothing, other than take up media space with tap-dance routines. Time will do the work for him, enabling him to pass the October 31 deadline, after which he is free. He can call a general election any day he wishes from November 1st on.
He might: he would be tempted. The unexploded bomb, Farage’s Brexit Party, is defused. That party exists only to promote Brexit, and its raison d’être ends when Brexit becomes an accomplished fact on November 1st. With that menace out of the way, the Conservatives can recall their long-suffering legions of followers to the colors. Boris would triumph in having delivered Brexit to the nation, which it has long yearned for. The Conservatives would never look better than in the aftermath of the great victory, bathed in the glow of happy times to come. The electorate might reward them.
And the purge of the Conservative Party would begin in earnest. The keynote line that begins Act 4, Scene 1 of Julius Caesar contains the core political truth. Antony, the foremost enemy of the conspirators, says: “These many, then, shall die; their names are pricked.” For many years the Tories have been divided between Europhiles and Eurosceptics, with the former prevailing in the close calls and generally in Westminster. Not since Anthony Eden has a Prime Minister come to power openly skeptical of Europe. But now being pro-Brexit is the mainstream Tory position. And Brexit would lead, after a successful general election, to a settling of ancient scores. The election itself would see a culling of candidates, for the Conservative Associations, strongly pro-Brexit, are furious at the treacherous behavior of some MPs. Until the election they live, as MPs; they can only be re-elected if they carry the party ribbon. So it would be a very different Conservative Party in the Commons to emerge from the election. Civil wars are resolved by the winners winning and the losers losing.
[Image via: Philip Bitnar CC BY 2.0; cropped]
Ralph Berry writes from England.