In the absence of any leadership, party discipline or coherence on Brexit, the Tories have fallen into a state of constant, low-level civil war, with colleagues openly sniping at one another.
It used to be said of Boris Johnson that he could refresh the parts of the country other Conservative politicians could not reach. That was a long time ago, before the Brexit referendum changed British politics forever. Now, he is the Tory who is more divisive than any other. On Monday, his Conservative colleague Sarah Wollaston tweeted of the ex-foreign secretary: ‘No surprise to see the great charlatan blaming others for a mess of his own creation.’
Politicians of the same party have long argued with each other, in the most robust terms. But for one Tory MP to call another a ‘charlatan’, on the most public of platforms, shows the unashamedly toxic state of discourse inside the Conservative party today.
This is not, of course, to say that all the major political parties in Britain don’t have their internal troubles – the Labour Party stands on the brink of a split over anti-Semitism and Brexit, Sir Vince Cable is announcing plans for his resignation as Liberal Democrat leader, and Nicola Sturgeon is grappling with a sexual harassment scandal inside her own party.
Yet the Tories are the current party of government, responsible for implementing policy that affects all of our lives, including, most crucially of all, Brexit. Wollaston is not alone in wanting to vent her feelings about a political colleague. On social media, in print and in the broadcasting studios, Conservative MPs are engaged in an unprecedented level of open, low-level warfare.
Wollaston is chairman of the Health Select Committee and the Liaison Committee, the panel of select committee chairmen who grill the prime minister about government policy. The MP for Totnes is therefore one of the most senior backbench Conservatives, and has always been a strident, independent-minded politician.
Her incendiary tweet about Johnson was sparked by his latest column in the Daily Telegraph, in which he ridiculed Theresa May’s Chequers plan for Brexit as a ‘fix’. The content was no stronger than Johnson’s resignation letter in July, but the timing, at the start of the delicate final stages of the Brexit talks, made it all the more damaging.
Wollaston’s sharp response gave an insight into the scale of anger among Conservative remain-supporting MPs about the way prominent Brexiteers, some of whom, like Johnson, were in influential cabinet posts for the past two years, are attacking the prime minister’s plans without having any solutions themselves.
Antipathy towards Johnson is widespread on the Tory benches, to the point at which some MPs are saying they could not remain in the party if he became leader. Dominic Grieve, Johnson’s former cabinet colleague, said he would quit in those circumstances, following the ex-foreign secretary’s comments about the burka earlier this summer.
Heidi Allen, the Conservative MP for South Cambridgeshire, told BBC2’s Newsnight this week, in response to Johnson’s Telegraph article, she would follow suit. Amber Rudd, who during the 2016 referendum campaign memorably said Johnson could not be trusted on the journey home, put on a show of unity for nearly two years to sit in the cabinet as home secretary alongside the MP for Uxbridge and South Ruislip.
Now both politicians are free to speak their minds, Rudd described Johnson’s latest intervention as ‘ridiculous’, adding: ‘I don’t think it’s helpful all this fervent but short-term approach to Brexit that just has two or three words to try and sum up a strategy. It isn’t a strategy, it isn’t a plan. Once again it’s a case of leap before you look. There’s no proposal here.’
And, for the avoidance of doubt, Rudd said she stood by her comments about Johnson made during the referendum. For his part, Johnson’s articles about May are designed to bolster his leadership chances, as well as trying to undermine the Chequers proposal.
It is not only Johnson, as divisive as he is, who has prompted such a public display of blue-on-blue warfare. Jacob Rees-Mogg, the leader of the arch-Brexit European Research Group, is both the giver and the recipient of internal party criticism.
In July, Anna Soubry, a long-standing member of the soft Brexit awkward squad, accused Rees-Mogg of ‘running the country’ and condemned the ‘forces of darkness’ on the eurosceptic right of the party for damaging the Chequers plan.
That same month, the chancellor Philip Hammond was heard describing under his breath Andrea Jenkyns, another backbench Brexiteer, as a ‘stupid woman’ in the House of Commons after Jenkyns asked May at PMQs, in response to the Chequers plan, ‘at what point was it decided Brexit meant Remain?’
Even Justine Greening, who voted Remain, has lambasted May’s Chequers plan as being ‘more unpopular than the poll tax’. On Sunday, Soubry wrote on Twitter about her Tory colleague George Hollingbery, who had just given an interview on Radio 4’s The World This Weekend: ‘You do know difference between trade and free trade agreement? UK biz has traded with African based biz for decades. We’ve dozens of free trade agreements with other countries as a member of EU. They’re not mutually exclusive.’
It is beyond doubt that Brexit is the cause of this unprecedented division in the Conservative party, as it is across British politics. But the question is, why is it so toxic? Is it simply that the prospect of UK withdrawal from the EU has made politicians of the same stripe turn against each other, or is it the politicians themselves who have made the discourse around Brexit worse?
There is a reason why the language is more venomous between Conservatives on this issue than between MPs from Labour and other parties – because the issue of Europe has been the faultline in the Tory party for decades.
It is also true that social media, and Twitter in particular, has brutalised the language of all of us, not least for MPs ideologically opposed to, or wedded to, the UK being a member of the EU, depending on which side of the Brexit debate they are. But it is also the case – and has been for decades before social media – that MPs of the same party have been known to engage in pretty hostile and personal confrontations in the Commons tearooms and bars.
Before social media, only occasionally did this hostility spill out into public – for example when the then prime minister John Major was caught on a hot mic describing some of his own cabinet ministers as ‘bastards’. The language has not worsened, but the ability to air that language in public has become as easy as turning on the kettle.
What has heightened the blue-on-blue warfare is May’s lack of authority over her party and lack of a clear, supportable policy on Brexit. As MPs returned to parliament this week, how can the prime minister ask for unity on her own benches when there is no unity from her government on Brexit? If she had made more progress with EU negotiators on a Brexit deal would the acrimony have abated by now? It is unlikely, given the Conservatives’ long and difficult history on Europe, but May would have been in a stronger position to appeal for party unity.