It had been just five years since the referendum on Europe and the Party was splitting. In fact, it had all but split: the ideologues, on the losing side of the European vote, had taken control of the Party and the moderates were giving up and going their own way. The angry internal fighting paved the way for nearly two decades out of power.
This is the story of the Labour Party in the early 80s, the warning from history for their Conservatives successors today. Buffeted by electoral defeat, the cracks that emerged during 1975’s referendum on continued membership of what was then the Common Market were made ever bigger. It wasn’t all to do with Europe of course, but surely the fact that Cabinet colleagues had found themselves on opposing sides in that debate didn’t help relations. Now they found themselves fighting each other in an increasingly bitter struggle for control of the Party, with the broad divide between those who favoured remaining in the Europe and those who wanted to leave replicated in these dust-ups.
It’s the Conservative Party’s nightmare scenario. Already in this EU referendum campaign, Conservative MPs (and Peers, and Councillors) have been alternately calling for unity or sniping at each other. Iain Duncan Smith appealed for David Cameron to “play the ball not the man” this weekend. Lord Hague called for unity last week. Chris Grayling pleaded for there to be no consequences for pro-leave campaigners after the poll should remain win (“please don’t sack me” was the none-too-subtle undertow). At the same time, Mr Cameron’s digs at Boris Johnson are almost as unsubtle, the Secretary of State for Defence is refusing to deny having called Sir Bill Cash “an arse” and you have the slightly absurd sight of John Selwyn Gummer and Nadine Dorries, two very different Tories from quite different eras, having a spat on Twitter.
This is not a surprise. The Conservatives have been arguing over the EU since before it was called the EU – John Major railed at the anti-EU “bastards” in his cabinet in the 90s – and it’s to be expected that all the barely concealed disagreements that have bubbled under for the past thirty years will rise to the top during a referendum campaign. Yet whatever the result, but especially if the country votes to stay ‘in’, the long-term damage to the Conservatives is likely to be slight.
There are a whole host of reasons for this. Firstly, there are few attractive alternatives to the Conservative Party. Labour are obviously out and the Liberal Democrats look moribund for now (and besides, are both broadly pro-EU parties). UKIP are the obvious right-wing alternative, but a lot of Conservatives will be looking at the travails of senior figures such as Douglas Carswell and Suzanne Evans and concluding that it’s virtually impossible to work with Nigel Farage.
Secondly, the prospect of the Conservatives losing the next election to a Labour Party led by someone like Jeremy Corbyn is both unlikely – meaning that any Tory MP with ambition will choose to stay in – and horrifying to most Conservatives – meaning that many will swallow their anger about Europe and stay in the party. This likely electoral success in 2020 is also important as it gives divisions exposed in the EU referendum longer to heal; it was only after Labour’s 1979 electoral defeat that things started to fall apart. The business of governing tends to concentrate minds.
Thirdly, the Conservatives are just an annoyingly successful political party – the oldest political party in Britain and one that can trace its roots back to 1688 (when Tory was, as it is now on social media, a term of abuse). It has survived splits over the Corn Laws, Imperial Preference, appeasement and Iain Duncan Smith as leader. The EU referendum will at times produce Tory vs Tory. Some splits will be as angry and as bitter as anything the left can manage. Some people may not speak to each other again. But will the Conservative Party emerge from the whole process relatively united, relatively unscathed? Probably – they always do.