William Wallace writes: Could Brexit split the Conservative party?


How deeply could Brexit divide the Conservative Party, as the contradictory choices involved in negotiating an alternative relationship with the EU become clearer?

Media focus since the Referendum outcome has been on the widening divisions within the Labour Party.  Press comment has praised the self-discipline of the Conservatives, by contrast, in resolving the issue of leadership so quickly – though in reality it was resolved by the implosion of ‘Leave’ candidates, one after the other, leaving Teresa May in command of the field.  But the divide between practical Eurosceptics and ideological Europhobes is wide, and often bitter.

May, Hammond, Fallon and Clark have no strong or deep commitment to European cooperation, but they recognise that real British interests are at stake in maintaining close relations with our European neighbours, and they listen to the arguments put forward by major British companies and banks.  They will want to maintain the military, intelligence, police and border cooperation links which have developed over the past 40 years – scarcely mentioned in the Referendum debate, but all important to UK security.  Above all, they will want to maintain as close a relationship with the Single Market as possible, understanding that the sharing of standards and the avoidance of delays in transit across borders are crucial to keeping industrial production within the UK rather than seeing it move across the Channel.

Boris Johnson’s assurance in his Telegraph article the Monday after the Referendum that the UK could retain full access to the Single Market showed that his half-thought-through preferences are also for a ‘Brexit-lite’.  The Adam Smith Institute, a free market think tank, has recommended negotiation of re-entry to the European Economic Area (alongside Norway), at least for an interim period, accepting that this will involve a trade-off with some continuing free movement, and a significant (though smaller) UK contribution to the EU budget.

Europhobes, by contrast, want to leave as soon as possible, and as completely as possible, paying nothing more, and offering no compromises to the EU in negotiating our future relationship.  Bernard Jenkin MP, one of the most ideologically anti-European Conservatives, has doubted whether the government needs to invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty; all we need to do, he and others have suggested, is to reassert national sovereignty, unilaterally, by repealing the 1972 European Communities Act.  The impact on the UK economy would be severe, as major companies have made clear; but Europhobes are not too concerned about the economic penalties.  Julian Lewis MP, the Europhobe chair of the Commons Defence Committee, said on the World at One in early August that the extra £700m cost in future military defence procurement, estimated to follow from Brexit and exchange rate adjustments, is ‘a price worth paying’ for regaining our sovereignty.

There’s an irrational hatred of European cooperation among the Europhobes. Once when in government I was escorting the German Minister for Europe round Parliament.  As we got into a lift John Redwood joined us.  An accompanying German diplomat politely introduced his minister to this former associate of  Mrs.Thatcher, who responded by insulting the Germans before we had reached the next floor.  Liam Fox, now back as international trade minister, would like to rebuild ‘the Anglosphere’ of English-speaking countries; he believes that the English share values with right-wing Americans that are in fundamental opposition to those of Germany, France, and above all Brussels.  Independence from Brussels drives the passion of the Europhobe Right; they see no contradiction in accepting greater dependence on China and the Arab Gulf states for investment and trade, so long as we are free from Europe.

The press are now beginning to comment on the emerging tensions among the four ministers responsible for negotiating Brexit. Fox and Davis want a hard break.  Johnson and Leadsom, who will have to defend the interests of the British food industry which sends two-thirds of its exports to the EU Single Market, appear more open to compromise.  The Cabinet, and the parliamentary party, are similarly divided.

Mrs. May risks facing a similar problem to John Major, with an embittered ideological right demanding a clean break from Brussels and Conservative supporters in the City and industry pushing for some form of closer association.  She won’t find it easy to reconcile nationalist passions and practical economic and security interests, while holding her party together.  A recent diatribe from Melanie Phillips in The Times, accusing ‘establishment’ members of the government of plotting to weaken the terms of Brexit, gave a good indication of how sharp the argument could get.   We should not assume that the Labour Party is the only one that faces bitter internal conflict over the coming year.


* Lord Wallace of Saltaire is a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords. He has taught at Manchester and Oxford Universities and at the LSE.

Read more by or more about , , or .
This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • I’d be more worried about the future of the Lib Dems over Brexit. The Tories are set to rule for a generation due to the inability of the left to grapple with realpolitik and the fact they are caught in a sterile rut of a mindset.

  • Richard Underhill 19th Aug '16 - 11:35am

    Yes. Also in The Times was a recent article by the Africa Editor of The Economist. He said all countries around the world mainly trade with their neighbours. He had recently visited all African countries, most of whom, he said, would like to trade more, but their border controls are corrupt, which their political leaders know but are unable to control. If the trade is in food the lorries are held up at the border until the lorry drivers pay the customs officers or the food deteriorates. The consequence is a lack of trade.
    Therefore if David Davis, Liam For Boris Johnson think that they can make a trade agreement they also needs to explain how it would be enforced.
    The UK has, of course, experienced such problems occasionally caused by strikes in France, or by the actions and/or inactions of previous governments on the Spain-Gibraltar border, but in Africa these problems happen all the time, and not only in Africa.
    Also worrying is what Jeremy Corbyn said about NATO.

  • The divisions go further. Amongst ‘hard Brexiters’ there is an irreconcilable division between ideological free marketeers, such as Fox, Davis and Hannon and the closed border protectionism of the populist right wing press and which seems to motivate the bulk of the Tory membership. Although only few ministers such as Leadsom gave voice to his side in the campaign, it was this tendency that was appealed to and which enabled the Brexit majority.

    Implosion will occur if, to further their aims, the ideologically bent free marketeers decide to continue exploit the protectionist and anti immigrant tendency as they did in their Brexit campaign.

    The telling factor will be the impact on the UK economy. The devaluation of the Pound makes inflation inevitable and uncertainty of the future is likely to hit investment and jobs. Only the extent to which this is will hit home is in question, as well as the extent to which the blame is pinned on Brexit.

    Lib Dems can prosper if there is a loss in confidence of the Conservative’s ability to manage the economy and people feel the cost of Brexit.

  • Were Brexit to produce a boost in manufacturing and finance, causing the economy to prosper with a comparatively real wages boost for the lower paid, Liberal Democrats would be sorely embarrassed. If Brexit had little appreciable effect, Lib Dem arguments could be easily brushed aside. A further and to my mind more realistic danger for Lib Dems would be if the outcome of Brexit had turned out to be significantly damaging, yet Liberal Democrats had not shown the courage of their convictions (similar to if Lib Dems had gone along with Labour and Conservatives on the invasion of Iraq).

    Although Lib Dems see increasing success in local by-elections, national poll ratings remain low. The same statistical adjustments that over-rated polling before 2015, are now likely to have the opposite effect, but even so movement is slow. The Liberal Democrat Party has to ask itself where it is more likely to garner support, from amongst the 48% who wanted to stay in the EU or the 52% who did not. Given the nature of the deep rooted and long standing philosophical basis for the Liberal outlook of the Liberal Democrat Party, this question should be easy to answer.

  • John Peters 19th Aug '16 - 3:12pm

    With a few notable exceptions the Tories have no emotional attachment to the EU project of ever closer union. I’m sure we will rub along together quite happily, but thank you for your concern.

  • Stevan Rose 19th Aug '16 - 6:50pm

    Could Brexit split the Conservative Party? No. May and sensible Tories know power lies in occupation of the central ground, hence May’s comparatively leftish No.10 speech. They know they need a fair chunk of the Remainer camp too. Above all May will not be the PM that presides over the breakup of the UK.

    The solution has to include free trade and probably some fudge on free movement to avoid economic consequences and Scottish independence. Putting Davis and Fox in the Government forces them to confront the impracticalities of the extreme positions and they will have to resign as failures or back a soft Brexit. It’s an extremely clever move that minimises the potential for splits.

    Devaluation of the currency won’t cause inflation. The pound has been as low as €1.02 over the last decade and there’s no evidence of associated inflation.

    I have some sympathy with Jane’s view while this party focuses on various degrees of denial, whining about politicians being economic with the truth (difficult though it is to believe) and forgetting daft Remain claims. We should be working on all the issues that resulted in a Leave vote and trying to shape the Brexit solution to preserve what we can. If/when moderate Labour get rid of Corbyn internally or via a split we will be in deep trouble combatting a substantial centre left credible alternative with the resources to get their act together very effectively.

  • Rightsaidfredfan 19th Aug '16 - 9:24pm

    I won’t lie, I’m delighted by the Brexit result and I want to see the UK rip up the European arrest Warrent. I think the Conservative party will be fine as they believe in democracy and the Tories who opposed Brexit seem to accept that the result must be implemented. I think part of the reason Cameron put it to a referendum was because he believed that one side of the party would get behind the other if the people made the choice. I think Cameron was right and I have yet to hear any high profile conservative’s call for overturning the result but perhaps there are one or two?

    48% of the voters opposed Brexit but what percentage of that group would still want us to rejoin without another referendum by effectively using the oddities of FPTP to ignore the will of the majority? Very few I think. Most of the remainers I spoke to seem to accept that we had a vote and should now leave and not have a re-run and not use parliament to stop the exit or rejoin without a referendum. That group of remainers who now accept that we need to leave will only grow when out is the status quo and rejoining means being in the euro zone and Schengen.

    The lib dems reaction to Brexit could prove fatal for their party. They need to reconsider their position and be very careful. They could find that picking up the support of those determined to be in the EU at any price, without the consent of the people if necessary, gains them a few points nationally but is repulsive to the majority and costs their 8 MPs their majorities and seats in parliament. In 2015 the party lost the majority of its Westminster seats, their reaction to Brexit could cost them that again. With 1 to 3 MPs they wouldnt even be a mainstream party anymore, there are parties from Northern Ireland who win more seats than that. Also remember it is easier to lose voters than gain then and 30% of lib dem voters voted for Brexit. Telling those people that if you win you will seek to overturn the result despite the fact that the majority voted for it may send them running.

  • Martin said: “Were Brexit to … cause the economy to prosper … Liberal Democrats would be sorely embarrassed. A … more realistic danger for Lib Dems would be if the outcome of Brexit …turned out to be significantly damaging, yet Liberal Democrats had not shown the courage of their convictions.”

    Good point, which I will merely paraphrase in the hope it helps get the point across:

    If, against all the odds, Brexit goes swimmingly, then we Lib Dems would be toast, whatever we did. We would be toast if we continued to oppose Brexit. But we would equally be toast if we were to announce a belated conversion to Brexit, because nobody is going to vote for the last people to come around to supporting a winning idea.

    If, however, Brexit goes pear-shaped, it will matter very much what we decided to do.

    If we had decided to swallow our objections and declare that Brexit was just fine if done right, then we would look appallingly wimpish when actually, it didn’t work out. We would then be the academics who worked out the right answer, but were just too stupidly timid to tell anybody.

    If Brexit goes pear-shaped, and we had stuck to our guns that we always knew it would go pear-shaped, we would gain far more credit. We might even get the chance to reverse it all before catastrophe strikes.

    Let’s not be defeatist wimps and losers.

  • There is obviously more consensus amongst the 48% than the 52%. It looks very unlikely that whatever turns out to be government policy on Brexit could have majority consent. This is a reason why Brexiters continue to carp at their opponents and are still unwilling or unable to spell out what Brexit entails or where it is heading.

  • Richard Underhill 20th Aug '16 - 10:27am

    Brexit challenge in Northern Ireland: APNI leader and former Justice Minister David Ford urged the PM to consider the Northern Ireland peace process before triggering Article 50. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-37132024. http://allianceparty.org/
    The Deputy First Minister (SF) wrote in The New European that he had met the PM but she had given no assurances that the £3 billion that the EU gives to Northern Ireland would be replaced by the UK government, therefore leaving the EU would be “a disaster” for Northern Ireland.
    There is no suggestion that the republic wants to pick up a bill that big. They previously had a bilateral loan from the UK negotiated by David Cameron.

  • Richard Underhill 20th Aug '16 - 11:00am

    Rightsaidfredfan 19th Aug: “I have yet to hear any high profile conservative’s call for overturning the result but perhaps there are one or two?”
    Without checking MPs’ websites please include Tunbridge Wells MP Greg Clark who has written in local newspapers about his continuing support for Remain. The Tunbridge Wells Counting Area voted for Remain. Please do not ascribe that solely to demography because Tonbridge and Sevenoaks voted to Leave.

  • It was said that up to a third of Tory MPs were Europhobes. So some two thirds are likely to be pragmatists, leaning towards an EEA/EFTA kind of compromise. According to the Financial Times, the City is also lobbying for this approach.

    What could the hard-liners do about it? Apart from making a lot of fuss, surely their only power is to vote against the government and force a general election. In a previous debate in LDV, commentators have said no Tory would ever do this. So if Tory pragmatists have the backbone to stand their ground, the government should be able to adopt a soft Brexit negotiating stance.

    But what would be the EU’s response? Here in France, there is little inclination to compromise with the British. Looking more widely at the Liberal community in Europe, Guy Verhofstadt also expressed impatience with the British, demanding they invoke Article 50 immediately.

    So instead of just waiting to see how Tory splits pan out, perhaps LibDem leaders could help shape a more conciliatory EU approach to negotiations. They could call on their Liberal contacts in Europe to discuss various ‘soft’ solutions, to save Britain- and the EU- from the worst consequences of Brexit.

    The LibDems have links across Europe- rather than do nothing, let’s use them.

  • If Jane thinks we’re stuck in a sterile mindset, perhaps she could offer an example or an argument for debate. I do agree that the way Labour is going, the Tories are set to rule for longer than I’d like.

    As for FarRightSaidFred, we had enough of people who actually were Liberals warning us to be careful during the coalition. Being warned to be care3ful by someone who does not appear Liberal is unlikely to put us off. It’s about time we stand for what we believe in and European co-operation, though not a fundamental value, is something we stand for and believe in. Fred like not a few others misrepresents our position to suggest it’s undemocratic. In fact we’re saying we’ll stand for EU re-entry at the next election whenever it is. That’s thoroughly democratic. Otherwise, any party that put forward a policy and failed to win an election would have to drop the policy before the next election. The Tories believe in democracy?? Then why do they crush local democracy and fawn on lobbyists with money to donate?

  • Rightsaidfredfan 20th Aug '16 - 4:42pm

    @simon banks

    “As for FarRightSaidFred, we had enough of people who actually were Liberals warning us to be careful during the coalition. Being warned to be care3ful by someone who does not appear Liberal is unlikely to put us off”

    Oh I’m a liberal Simon. I believe in free markets and free people. I believe in free speech, freedom of expression and equality of opportunity. I believe in treating every person as an individual and am totally against the identity politics of dividing people into subgroups and treating different groups differently. Needless to say I am not a lib dem. My main reason for being opposed to the EU was because I am totally against Undemocratic power as I believe that it always leads to those in charge becoming arrogant and only serving their own interests and those of other elites. The only way the people can really be in charge is if they can directly remove those in power, in the EU this was clearly not the case.

    As for ignoring the advice of those who didn’t seem to be part of your club, I think that is a perfect example of the problem the party still has.

    The reason I like this site is my views are challenged by those who more often than than not don’t agree with me. I do not wish to become self deluded and live in a political Echo chamber.

    After the Canadian liberals lost so badly their new leader (now the PM of Canada) banned making policy for two years and said the party needed to spend the next two years doing nothing but listening. Had you guys done the same you wouldn’t have come up with such a damaging policy of seeking to rejoin the eu without another referendum.

  • David Allen’s amplification of my earlier remark about the Liberal Democrats showing the “courage of their convictions”, deserves a response from anyone who thinks that the Party should adopt a compromised line on Brexit.

  • Now that William’s thoughts about the “Will the Tories split after Brexit?” have provoked a usefully broad set of responses, perhaps he could use his experience in government to focus on “Will Brexit exhaust the Conservatives (or at least the Conservatives at Westminster)?” If Brexit and its consequences are going to take up a disproportionate amount of Government time, thinking and finance for 5-10 years, does this mean years without a “normal” UK administration? Will it weaken every department apart from the one that puts out the daily press release, while the legislative opportunities are seriously constrained?

  • No splits anywhere. I sometimes wonder whether some spend far too much time wondering who is going to split from whom, rather than just getting on with our own issues and development.

  • Audrey Griffiths 22nd Aug '16 - 1:34pm

    The difficulties faced by the two major parties show how much they have not been listening to the general public. A lot of it is probably not to do with The referendum but more to do with those who perceived their position in life being eroded by successive governments whilst others are appearing to be be able to flourish without impunity. Any permission to voice, in a lot of cases, their righteous anger would have ended with the same result. So this government must now stop bickering amongst themselves and find a way of satisfying not only addressing the needs of both the leavers and the remainers but also why so many people feel so unrepresented.

  • Richard Underhill 25th Aug '16 - 9:01pm

    Businessman David Sainsbury said ” … I believe strongly that coming out of Europe will be damaging to our economy and society, and dangerously so if we come out of the common market.
    I am sorry that we failed to convince the British people as I believe the dangers of Brexit are very real, and I hope that thoughtful and careful leadership by the new prime minister will mean that my worst fears are not realised.”

Post a Comment

Lib Dem Voice welcomes comments from everyone but we ask you to be polite, to be on topic and to be who you say you are. You can read our comments policy in full here. Please respect it and all readers of the site.

If you are a member of the party, you can have the Lib Dem Logo appear next to your comments to show this. You must be registered for our forum and can then login on this public site with the same username and password.

To have your photo next to your comment please signup your email address with Gravatar.

Your email is never published. Required fields are marked *

Please complete the name of this site, Liberal Democrat ...?


Recent Comments

  • Alexander
    I won't criticise you for your editorial position Mark, but I will say I was surprised to see you use that ridiculous term 'sealioning'. It's nothing more than ...
  • Jayne mansfield
    @ Mark, A moderators job must be a very difficult one. I think the subject matter that caused such problems , does so because whether one is straight,,gay ...
  • Mark ValladaresMark Valladares
    @ Nigel, Then you’re not really being censored, are you? You are perfectly at liberty to publish and be damned. You decide the policy and accept or reject ...
  • Jeremy Hargreaves
    Thanks for the comments and interest above. Helen I certainly hope you will apply. And others! Links in the original piece, as I'm sure you saw. @Tad Jones ...
  • Paul Barker
    We all owe the LDV Team a vote of thanks for their work & patience....