The Guardian view on Tory leadership: politics may not survive Brexit | Editorial

The Brexit virus that is running through the Conservatives may end up shutting down both the party and the electoral system that supports it

The threat by a Conservative minister to bring down the government of the next party leader if he attempts to leave the European Union without a deal shows how the Brexit virus, having hijacked the Tory machine, could end up shutting it down. It would be wrong to regard such warnings as a bluff. When push comes to shove, such MPs are likely to be in no mood for compromise. This attitude will have been hardened if Boris Johnson becomes party leader despite his obvious flaws – especially since Brexit has radicalised Conservative members so much that they would rather break up the United Kingdom than not leave the EU. Depressingly the no-deal option is openly flirted with by both leadership candidates, shamelessly proffered to Tory members in exchange for their votes.

It is important to remember that even with the DUP’s support, a few Tory rebels can bring down a wayward government by leaving it. What also seems clear is that the new Conservative leader will not have a majority for either his central policy or for his government. That means Theresa May will in all probability have to assess which party leader will command a majority in the Commons. If it is not the Tory leader then it will be Jeremy Corbyn. If neither can put together the votes then Britain will be heading for a general election. Where Tory rebels would go from there is a tantalising question. Some have argued that the shape of the civil war in the party resembles the infighting that was a prelude to Robert Peel’s 1846 repeal of the Corn Laws, which protected British grain against cheaper imports. Peelites such as William Gladstone, who split the Tories by defecting to what ended up as the Liberal party, could justifiably claim to be on the side of the future rather than the past. That is still a seductive argument that could be used by their would-be heirs today.

However, the recent experience of Change UK has shown that while there are many contenders for the inheritor of Gladstone’s mantle, their claims have yet to be realised in substance. Well-established mainstream parties are not given to significant splits in the modern era – not least because no substantial breakaway has given rise to a significant new competitor or one that could ally with an existing rival. Both Labour, which endured a traumatic schism in the 1980s, and the Tories are being stretched by Brexit. For the Conservatives there is a more existential threat because it faces a surgent rightwing nationalist Brexit party of Nigel Farage.

The battle for the soul of the party, between rationalists and ideologues, could quickly become one that splits the Tories so badly that they end up out of power for decades. Even if the party stays together there is another existential threat: the electoral system. Having benefited from first past the post for decades, the Tories could become its victim. The reason is that under current arrangements once a party falls below a certain level of support, which is about 25%, the number of seats it wins collapses. With Mr Farage and Brexit rumbling on, the country could very well have four parties that can muster that share of the vote. Both Labour and the Tories risk voters defecting to the Brexit party and the Liberal Democrats. The result of any election could be chaos. It should be noted that British democracy has never been specifically associated with just one way of voting. First past the post in single-member constituencies was not the original system, nor one that many reformers had sought. It was a postwar creation that ought to be reconsidered in the light of the debacle of Brexit.

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Editorial

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