Have the Tories – the world’s most successful political party – been fatally impaled on the fork of Brexit? Is a Corbyn-led Marxist government now inevitable?
If the answer to these questions is not yet a definitive ‘Yes’, the results of the European elections confirm that the Conservative Party has a bigger fight on its hands than at any time in living memory.
Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party has attracted millions of traditional Tory voters exasperated by the Government’s failure to honour the outcome of the June 2016 referendum.
How on Earth is the next Conservative leader going to win them back?
For the danger is that Farage’s party will split the centre-Right vote at a future general election, giving Labour – despite all its difficulties, which were emphasised by its appalling results last night – a clear run at becoming the next government.
Farage was re-elected as an MEP last night along with fellow south east Brexit Party candidates Belinda De Lucy (right) and Robert Rowland (left)
Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage arrives to speak to the media outside the counting centre for the European Parliamentary election in Southampton. His party has surged to victory in the poll
Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party has attracted millions of traditional Tory voters exasperated by the Government’s failure to honour the outcome of the June 2016 referendum
It’s no good saying Farage is bound to do less well in a general election, when issues other than leaving the EU would be at stake.
Brexit seems likely to be the overriding – one might say virtually the only – political hot potato for as long as any of us can see.
The problem can be stated in simple terms. The best way for a new Tory leader to lessen the appeal of Nigel Farage will be to reject a ‘soft Brexit’ and champion the cause of No Deal.
And, indeed, given the strongly pro-Leave disposition of Tory Party members who will decide between the two candidates presented to them by Conservative MPs, it seems almost certain the next leader will be someone prepared to do this.
Once this person is in position, the only possibility of extracting significant concessions from Brussels, particularly over the Northern Ireland backstop, will lie in convincingly threatening No Deal – a prospect that unnerves the EU Commission and several European countries.
Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage declares victory in the European elections in the early hours of Monday, warning that his movement would repeat its success in a general election if Brexit was not delivered
Yet a new prime minister pitching his or her tent on such territory could face an almost instantaneous No Confidence motion in which some Remainer Tory MPs would vote with the Opposition and precipitate a general election.
One could put it in these terms: The next prime minister would be caught in a pincer movement, with the Brexit Party and hardline Tory MPs applying increasing pressure on one side and a Commons majority opposed to No Deal on the other.
It will take a political genius to navigate these rapids, and it’s not at all clear we have one among the candidates jostling for power.
Anyone who thinks the demise of Theresa May marks an end to in-fighting and political turbulence is sadly deluded.
The truth is there are sometimes intractable political problems that don’t admit of an instant solution.
The Tory Party may be unable to save itself. The centre-Right could split – or at any rate the Brexit Party might deprive the Conservatives of an electoral majority – and Corbyn would then unleash his Marxist experiment on an unfortunate British public.
But let us not give in to despair. Notwithstanding the Remainer inclinations of the Commons, the logic of the outcome of European election result is that the next prime minister should be a robust – and I hope sinuous – No Dealer.
Such a person would be in a strong position to highlight the simplistic and one-dimensional nature of Farage’s appeal.
It is possible not to be terrified of No Deal and yet to believe that an improved negotiated settlement with the EU is both preferable and attainable.
As the European election results confirm that No Deal is regarded by millions of voters as either an unfrightening or even alluring prospect, the next prime minister may be able to claim something of a mandate to wave in the faces of recalcitrant Remainers.
There is something else a new Conservative leader could do to persuade Leavers seduced by the shallow appeal of Farage to return to the fold.
The Brexit Party leader has no answer to Jeremy Corbyn. Indeed, as things stand he is facilitating a Labour victory.
I don’t believe former Tories who voted for Farage on Thursday want such an outcome. It’s one thing to be a protest party upsetting the established order over a single issue, it is quite another to show voters you have the arguments to see off Corbyn.
Mrs May was utterly consumed by Brexit, but there are other things in life.
The next Tory leader obviously has to find a solution, which is going to be fiendishly difficult. But he or she also needs to nail Corbyn’s many dangerous idiocies.
It will be an enormous challenge. The Tory Party has no guaranteed right of survival. But a Tory prime minister who delivers a respectable Brexit, and engages with the deadly threat of Corbyn, can still puncture Nigel Farage’s bubble.