A vote to leave the EU could decapitate the Conservative leadership – and a vote to stay would leave the party bitterly divided
American journalism has many faults, but one of its maxims is always worth remembering. It is the job of a newspaper to comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable.
Right now, they don’t come much more comfortable than the Conservatives. HMS Conservative Party is steaming across an ocean of champagne, its passengers still struggling to believe that they won a majority then Labour picked Jeremy Corbyn.
All told, the Conservative Party gathering in Manchester is a happy one, possibly the happiest and most upbeat I’ve experienced in 15-odd years of going to such events.
What better time to look at things that could turn joy to sadness, shatter hopes and dreams, and maybe just maybe end the Conservative Party as we know it?
The referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union could destroy the Conservative Party. That is not an exaggeration or a click-bait headline. It’s a simple statement of fact. The chances of that destruction may not be high, but the possibility is real.
It’s widely accepted that a British vote to leave the EU would do enormous harm to David Cameron and George Osborne, forcing the former to quit early and the latter to abandon his leadership hopes. Effectively, the electorate would decapitate the Tory leadership.
In fact, winning the referendum and remaining in the EU could be almost as destructive to the Conservatives. A lot would depend on the margin of victory. A close victory for the Remainers could do nearly as much damage as defeat.
Today, Boris Johnson and Zac Goldsmith both address the Tory conference. They share more than hair-colour, schooling and London. Both are potential players in the Conservative Out campaign; Downing Street and the Osborne team keeps a hawklike watch on both.
After the referendum, the Conservative Party’s ability to smoothly re-absorb several million Leave voters (and the scores of Tory MPs who agreed with them) cannot be taken for granted. Some of them might never come home: many Scots Labour voters who said Yes last year have not returned to their old party, and may never do so.
“The referendum will definitely be emotional and could be bitter. We might lose people who never come back to us,” one Cabinet minister frets.
Simply, the only way to avoid the referendum placing significant parts of the Conservative family on opposite sides of the divide is for Mr Cameron to find a position on which the entire party can agree and then win overwhelming public support (65 per cent, say) for it. In other words, to resolve the Tory split over Europe that has persisted for more than 40 years.
Mr Cameron has spent his entire leadership trying to delay and defer dealing with that split, repeatedly offering his EU-hostile colleagues dollops of sceptic jam tomorrow. He started by promising to pull out of the European Peoples Party, then dragged his feet about doing it. Then the “cast iron” promise of a referendum on the European Constitution, to be held on the other side of a general election. It’s a mañana policy on Europe, and it worked very well for a decade. But with the referendum, mañana will finally come for David Cameron and the Tories over Europe.
Can he get through this without grievously splitting his party? Given Mr Cameron’s remarkable luck and remarkable record of achieving the improbable, we shouldn’t rule this out. He’s very good at getting himself into sticky situations, but at least as good at getting out of them.
Still, the scale of the task brings to mind the old British Army adage: The impossible we do at once, but miracles take a little longer. And Mr Cameron has given himself a fixed timetable.
Is it really possible that the coming EU vote will leave the current party system entirely unchanged? That the Tories, with disagreement over Europe woven into their genetic code, will walk away from the coming collision with a divided electorate unscathed and intact?
The Conservatives should enjoy the sunshine and champagne in Manchester this week. Thanks to the leader who brought them their sweetest triumph, who has done more than any other of his generation to return the party to the sunlit uplands of power and popularity, they may end the decade in a state of civil war or even schism.