Earlier this month, Nick Boles, a staunchly Cameronite Conservative MP, quit the party after his efforts to find a solution to the Brexit deadlock were rejected by a mere 21 votes.
In his emotional Commons statement, Mr Boles said he was resigning the Tory whip “with immediate effect” because the party he had served since the 1990s as a young councillor on Westminster City Council had “shown itself to be incapable of compromise”.
Boles, widely regarded as a close political ally of both Cameron and Osborne, was increasingly regarded as a fringe figure in Tory politics. The whispers of deselection had turned into rumblings, and then open calls for him to resign his seat.
That advocating for a softer Brexit has seen Boles vilified by the party chairman for his own constituency, is a stark sign of the Brexit radicalisation which has engulfed the Tory party. The party of pragmatism and stable governance is being slowly cleansed of its moderates, in an atmosphere reminiscent of Thatcher’s ousting of the Tory ‘wets’ from her cabinet after the election victory of 1983.
The fundamental difference in today’s Tory party is that this right-wing lurch is not being driven by a Tory Prime Minister in number 10, pushing a hard right economic agenda, but instead is propelled by the party’s grass roots, enabled by the rudderless and politically lifeless non-leadership of Theresa May.
Boles’ resignation from the Tory whip is the predictable result of the fragmentation of the party along Brexit lines. The stubbornness of the European Research Group, headed up by the walking Victorian reenactor Jacob-Rees Mogg, has actually squandered the best chance they had of a harder Brexit; Theresa May’s deal was always at the far-end of what could be delivered without remaining in the customs union or the single market.
The Conservative supporters of the People’s Vote campaign are now coming round to the idea of backing May’s deal on condition that it goes to a confirmatory vote from the people, but May seems unwilling to support this. The Brexit Delivery Group, a faction of pragmatic Tories who want to move on from Brexit, represent an increasingly beleaguered group of backbenchers, who are witnessing the fracturing of their party at half speed. In the words of Simon Hart’s the BDG’s leader, ‘all hell has broken loose.’
This factionalism and unwillingness to compromise has not allowed May’s government to function as any normal government would, existing in a state of constant Brexit paralysis, incapable of tackling any of the burning injustices she talked about on the steps of Downing Street back in 2016.
It will be no surprise if this factionalism causes other previously loyal and establishment Tories such as Nicky Morgan, Dominic Grieve and Justine Greening to resign the Tory whip as well. Indeed, Grieve has publicly been threatened with deselection by his own constituency party, and Greening has spoken of her unwillingness to remain in the party if Boris Johnson became leader. Some may even be considering following Anna Soubry, Sarah Wollaston and Heidi Allen to The Independent Group, or ChangeUK as they recently became.
This brings us uncomfortably to where the Tory party is headed next.
Mrs May’s announcement that she would resign if MPs backed her withdrawal agreement in parliament did very little to reduce the size of the defeat, leaving it 58 votes shy of victory. Instead what it created was a slow motion leadership contest, being fought fully out in the open, with all candidates stopping just short of openly declaring their candidacy. Javid, Truss, Hunt, Johnson and even Raab, all want the throne, but do not want to inherit it whilst it’s still sinking into the cesspool of Brexit.
Political commentators are now talking of a unity candidate, someone who can bring much needed cohesion back to the Tory benches. A leader, whose charm, wit, courage and determination to deliver Brexit is unquestionable. The fundamental problem with this is that such a person does not exist.
In a recent poll, the two best candidates to replace Theresa May are Boris Johnson and Sajid Javid. Both of these candidates present the party with two different problems. Firstly, Boris Johnson is the exact antithesis of a unifying candidate, loved by the Tory grassroots, but detested by a large number of Tory MPs as a duplicitous careerist. Many could not stomach life as a backbencher under his leadership.
Javid may be politically savvy, but the ability to deliver Brexit is not within the control of one person. Brexit is a chimera, all things to all people, with none of the options in parliament having the majority support of the house. Even a customs union, which appeared to be the centre-ground position with the most chance of gaining a majority, was defeated by three votes.
So where does all of this leave us? Britain is essentially leaderless, with parliament having finally taken back control of the law-making process as the Brexiteers always dreamed, but with no idea what to do with that control. Parliament has been found to be completely at a loss when it comes to finding a way out of this mess.
Some call for a general election, but as Sir John Major put it, that would solve nothing, waste time and money, and would require a new Tory Leader in addition to the extension of the Brexit deadline.
With parliament searching for a deliverable solution to what is fundamentally an undeliverable demand, wanting to leave the European Union with a better economic and political deal then we already have, and no hope of a Prime Minister emerging with the fortitude or political capital to get it done, the Conservative party has found itself in Brexit purgatory.