Robert Peel was the man who made the Conservative Party. Peel’s 1834 Tamworth Manifesto laid down the principles of a Conservative Party which has, in the near two centuries since, dominated British politics and rarely been out of power for long.
Peel was also the man who very nearly unmade the Conservative Party just a over a decade later, when in 1846 he drove through the repeal of the Corn Laws in order to promote his cause célèbre, free trade. This brave decision was later regarded as instrumental in kick-starting the mid-Victorian boom, but few of Peel’s critics had the foresight to predict this at the time. The issue ended Peel’s premiership, causing a split in the Conservative Party that would not be healed for decades to come.
Peel died four years later in a riding accident, but for much of the rest of the 19th Century British politics remained divided between his ideological supporters, like the Liberal prime minister William Gladstone, and his opponents, like the man who led the Corn Laws rebellion against peel in Parliament, Tory prime minister Benjamin Disraeli. Indeed, much of the infamous enmity between Gladstone and Disraeli dated back to this schism, for at the time both had been Conservatives.
It is one of the many mistakes British political historians make to assert that there is no such thing as a Conservative ideology. In truth, there are several. Along with three successive election victories, Margaret Thatcher bequeathed to the Conservative Party a fundamental ideological split, which then as now centred on the European question. Now the drama of Brexit threatens to expose that split in as fundamental a way as the Corn Laws ripped the Tories apart on another issue principally of trade.
Each of Thatcher’s successors has to some extent floundered on the European question. John Major was relentlessly attacked by the Tory right for obsequiousness to Brussels. William Hague was sidetracked by his unfounded fear that Labour would submit to the Euro. Iain Duncan Smith dragged the Tories to the right to address concerns about EU migration. Michael Howard doubled down on this and lost the 2005 election on the issue. David Cameron gambled his premiership and leadership on the EU referendum and lost both.
Theresa May now leads the UK off the Brexit cliff-edge, handcuffed to Tory Brexiteers who have whispered seductively into her ear one of the maddest political statements in recent years: “No deal is better than a bad deal.” Following her humiliation at the hands of the British public in June’s general election, May is now a mere caretaker Tory prime minister. Her principle objective is to hold the Tories together as they break the European Union apart. This is not statecraft but skullduggery, and it may yet fail to prevent a major Tory split.
UKIP’s demise has only served to embolden the Tory right. They no longer have to worry about half their number running off to join Nigel Farage’s band of maniacal libertarians. They are masters not just of their wing of the Conservative Party, but of the hostage prime minister. Meanwhile, ‘Liberal’ Tories in exile, like London Evening Standard Editor and former Chancellor George Osborne, are in open rebellion against May’s rudderless premiership and the disastrous strategy she is taking towards the Brexit negotiations.
For the past two years, many have predicted that the Labour Party might be about to split. Yet Jeremy Corbyn’s surprisingly good result in June’s election has united the bulk of the Labour Party around his leadership. Labour is able to allow the Tory Party to strangle itself on the Brexit negotiations, while offering an air of constructive ambiguity about how it would approach the process itself. This strategy has so far held the Labour Party and its voting coalition together, but the Tories have no such luxury.
The Conservative Party is remarkably resilient. It has survived crises bigger than Brexit before. There have been prophecies of its doom in the years 1846, 1906, 1945 and 1997. It has always come back and won again. Yet the European question has been ripping the Conservatives apart for perhaps too long for the party to bear. It has won only one majority since 1992 and it lost it again two years later at this June’s election.
As the timer ticks menacingly down towards Brexit and the Conservative Party puts its own grim survival over the British national interest, many in politics are now seriously and understandably wondering whether the party Peel founded nearly two centuries ago might finally be at an end.