One of the curiosities of British politics since the EU referendum in June 2016, is the relative robustness of the big political parties: Conservative and Labour have thus far survived and, albeit painfully, managed to accommodate a fundamental division among their members, activists and elected officials.
But the Tory MPs’ vote over the future of Theresa May could just be the beginning of a process that ends that accommodation and remakes not only the Conservative party, but Labour and the party system as a whole. This is about more than the fate of Mrs May. It’s about realignment.
The Brexit vote exposed – or rather, highlighted – a fundamental division in British political opinion that is simply not consistent with the current party system. You can define and describe that division in many ways. Some talk about “somewheres” vs “anywheres”. Some prefer to look at markers such as education: 68% of graduates voted to Remain, while 70% of those with no qualifications voted to Leave.
Another metric you might use is place: very broadly speaking, cities voted Remain while towns voted Leave (though the relative wealth of towns matters a lot for their Brexit vote).
Attempts to divide the electorate into distinct groups are always imperfect and the bigger the groups, the greater the imperfection in the typology: a narrative that says Leavers were all poorly-educated, poor and provincial while Remainers were all wealthy metropolitan graduates is impossible to square with the facts.
But I think it’s safe to say that two-and-a-half years on from the referendum, it’s possible to look at British politics and still see two distinct groups: Remainers and Leavers. The position a person took on the referendum is still a significant and useful predictor of their attitudes on other political questions.
Yet which party should Leavers vote for? Where do Remainers belong? Oddly, the answer is not entirely clear. Both parties are nominally committed to leaving the EU, yet are led by politicians who voted to Remain. Both have significant numbers of MPs who do not want to leave and who are actively campaigning for outcomes that would moderate or halt Britain’s exit. Both parties are attempting to straddle the Remain-Leave divide, and finding doing so increasingly painful.
This is the fundamental story of the confidence vote facing Mrs May. Her Brexit deal, like her leadership, was an attempt to bridge that divide, to partially satisfy the Leave group by delivering on the mandate of the referendum, while partially satisfying the Remain group by preserving significant ties to the EU and avoiding the harms that would arise from a No Deal exit.
The vote arises because enough Conservatives either cannot themselves tolerate her proposed compromise on the form of Brexit, or believe so many of their Leave-minded electors cannot do so. It seems inevitable that if Mrs May is forced from office, her successor will be someone more clearly committed to the Leave cause and to enacting the perceived wishes of Leave-minded voters.
The permutations of that outcome are numerous, but all lead the Conservative Party further away from the attempt to accommodate both Remainers and Leavers. If Mrs May goes and is replaced by, say, David Davis, the new PM would very likely reject any “backstop” provision over Northern Ireland. The EU, in turn, would very likely refuse any deal without that provision. The result would be to put Britain on course for that No Deal exit.
Could Remain-inclined Tories tolerate that outcome? Could they remain in a party that formally committed itself to an outcome they and their electors regard as economically disastrous? I think it is surely possible that sufficient Remain Tories would take action to prevent that outcome, even if that meant supporting a No Confidence vote in the new PM’s government. Remember, the numbers are small: it would only take seven Tory MPs to vote with the other parties to defeat the government.
The outcomes that would follow from that are again varied, but would surely include any or all of: suspending Article 50; a general election where the Tories lose power; a second EU referendum. All would entrench and even advance the polarisation of British political discourse around the Remain/Leave cleavage.
What would happen then? Could the Conservatives continue to accommodate both No Deal Brexiteers and Remainers intent on thwarting the central policy of the Conservative Government? Electorally, could the party even pretend to be a vehicle large enough to carry both Leave voters and Remainers?
When senior and sensible Remain Tories such as Nicky Morgan1 are already talking about the possibility of a national unity government, it is surely fair to speculate that the current party boundaries would be stretched to breaking point by the sort of outcomes that might follow on from the installation of a No Deal Tory as Prime Minister.
It is, bluntly, hard to see how all of the Conservative Party’s current MPs could remain in a party that formally dedicated itself to the Leave cause and the Leave-minded electorate. It is also hard to see how that party could retain all of the seats it currently holds in the Commons. The evidence is a bit unclear, but around a quarter of all Tory seats had a Remain majority at the referendum. (See Chris Hanratty’s work for more.)
That than, is the choice that the Conservatives are making when pondering Mrs May’s fate: do they wish to go on trying to contain that Remain/Leave divide, or do they wish to clearly take a side, in so doing possibly embrace a formal split and a fundamental shift in their political offer, abandoning southern, urban Remain-voting seats and electors, in order to target only Leavers?
If the Tories followed that path, what would happen to Labour? That party is also currently attempting to straddle the Remain/Leave divide, a position which is looking harder and hard to maintain as we near the scheduled date of exit. Maintaining that position could become harder still.
Just as it is possible to imagine the Conservatives becoming a full-blown Leave Party and shedding its Remain supporting members and voters, it is possible to imagine an all-out Remain Party emerging from today’s Labour Party: the Venn diagram overlap between critics of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership and backers of the Remain cause is very high. And private conversations with members of that group and with Remain-minded Tories raise the strong suspicion that they have more in common with each other than with their party colleagues who take a different view of Brexit.
So far, the two-party system and the two parties themselves have proved remarkably resilient even in the face of the electoral forces embodied in the referendum vote and the politics of the years that followed. But the pressure on that system and those parties is far from over. It is surely possible that some sort of realignment around that Remain/Leave cleavage will yet result from the referendum.
Britain’s electoral system tends to discourage any development of this sort, unless votes are concentrated in a given geographical area. But that is just the case here. The Remain vote is quite concentrated in largely urban seats, so a new pure Remain party might be able to win seats in its own right, while ToryLeave and LabourLeave carved up the other 2/3rds of seats.
Alternatively, the old parties could go on trying to muddle through, trying to define politics and political choices about something other than Remain vs Leave – or at least, trying to dissolve that division into a compromise that leaves no one entirely satisfied, just as the British political system has largely succeeded in doing for the last century or so.
That, then, is the magnitude of the choice Tory MPs take in their decision on Mrs May’s fate: try again to make the old model work, or smash the system in the hope of building something better from the fragments. And whatever the arguments that might be made for the latter course, it is hard to see how that could be described as the conservative choice.