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PETER OBORNE: The Tories face one of the greatest crises in their history

For 200 years, the Conservatives have been the most successful party in British politics. 

Indeed, they have not just been the biggest political success story in Britain. They’ve been the most successful political party in the world.

Through most of that time, I profoundly believe, the Tories have been a force for good. 

They have been the party of pragmatism, decency, moderation and common sense. At times of national crisis – such as the Second World War – they have made a habit of rising to the occasion.

That said, this morning the Tory Party faces one of the greatest crises in its history. It’s split as never before ahead of the vote on Theresa May’s deal this evening.

There are three factions: the Remainers who want Britain to stay part of the European Union; the No-Dealers (or so called Hard Brexiteers) who can’t wait for Britain to sever our ties with the EU, even if it means leaving without a deal; and the backers of the compromise deal Mrs May thrashed out with the EU late last year.

Theresa May (pictured delivering a speech in Stoke-on-Trent yesterday) faces defeat in the House of Commons on Tuesday as MPs vote on her Brexit withdrawal agreement 

The bad blood in the febrile House of Commons is intense. But as someone with close friends in all three camps, I hope I am in a position to step back and examine the bigger picture in terms of what this week’s events could mean for the future of the party.

For me, passionate Brexiteers such as John Redwood and Jacob Rees-Mogg are decent and honorable men. 

They are utterly committed to a vision of a sovereign Britain which they have fought all their life to achieve. I cannot condemn them for fighting for their cause, all the more so.

Likewise, I refuse to condemn the Remainers. Dominic Grieve is a politician of high principle who is utterly committed to the cause of parliamentary sovereignty. Ken Clarke, meanwhile, is one of the great principled parliamentarians of his own or any other generation.

Caught between these opposite factions is Theresa May, whose courage and stoicism remain admirable in her battle to take Britain through Brexit.

But the fact is that the Prime Minister, and the party she leads, are both on the edge of an abyss. If, as seems likely, her Withdrawal Agreement is rejected tonight, and perhaps defeated again at the second time of asking in the near future, there will be havoc.

As Brexiteers sought to take Britain out of the European Union without a deal, Remainer Tories would ally with Labour MPs to stop that happening. 

It seems increasingly possible that opponents of Brexit may get their way and prevent us leaving the EU all together.

If that is allowed to happen, millions of Tory supporters who voted Brexit will feel such a profound sense of betrayal that they may simple not vote Conservative again. The party will become unelectable. 

Such would be the lingering schisms that the Tories could end up virtually extinct as a political force.

However, whichever way Parliament votes, don’t think for a single second the deep Conservative divisions will go away.

Remember that tonight’s vote is simply on the terms of our withdrawal from the European Union. 

Huge rows in the future await over the exact nature of our future trading relations with Europe. 

Crucially, the majority of Tory members in the country are bitterly opposed to Mrs May’s deal. And it is they who decide the next Tory leader. Even if a badly damaged Mrs May wins through tonight, they may not forgive her for long.

They will want someone they see as a genuine Brexiteer to take Britain forward into the next stage of negotiations.

And remember, too, that many former Ukippers have joined the Tories with the intention of turning the Conservatives into the anti-Europe party.

Only twice in its history has the Conservative Party faced divisions as profound as today’s. Both times it was over trade and tariffs – the same issues which lie at the heart of the European Union question.

John Redwood

Jacob Rees-Mogg

Conservative MPs John Redwood (left) and Jacob Rees-Mogg (right) are both expected to vote against Theresa May’s Brexit deal in the Commons division on Tuesday 

The first was the Corn Laws crisis of the 1840s, when a young Benjamin Disraeli led opposition on behalf of farmers against Prime Minister Robert Peel’s plan to end protectionism. 

The result was a decade of Tory opposition. The second came before the First World War when the party split wide open over proposals for tariffs on trade from outside the British empire. The party was out of power for two decades that time.

Now, there is a real danger that could happen all over again.

In my judgment, the crisis over our departure from the European Union is even worse that the Corn Laws crisis, or the tariff controversy at the start of the 20th century.

The Conservative Party is in deep, deep trouble whichever way MPs vote. The Tories own Brexit. The party had been fighting a European civil war for three decades before David Cameron called his EU referendum. Then Mrs May became Prime Minister promising to deliver Brexit.

She made mistakes, and she’s broken promises – she assured MPs at a meeting of the 1922 committee of Tory backbenchers as recently as December 12 that she would deliver legally binding changes to the Northern Irish backstop.

That hasn’t happened – and this failure to deliver is the reason she’s in bad trouble tonight.

The Tories promised to deliver Brexit. If they turn their back on Mrs May’s deal tonight, many voters will never forgive them. 


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