Skinny size me: some women dramatise their inner conflict by shedding weight. Photograph: Ben Stockey
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The anorexic statement

Trust me, notice me, feed me: every female body conveys a message. So, when a woman starves herself, what is she saying?

I knew a woman whose job it was to take anorexics to the swimming pool. She was an occupational therapist: eating disorders were her field. She worked at a nearby clinic and we bumped into one another from time to time.

I found myself curious about her work, or more truthfully about her patients, those singular modern-day martyrs to the cause of their own bodies. Without quite knowing why, as I have grown older I have become more interested in – it could even be said, more respectful of – what might be called the anorexic statement. Perhaps it’s because, as the 45-year-old English mother of two children, my body has little power of provocation or utterance; or rather, that what it’s said or tried to say through the years hasn’t seemed to have added up to all that much. Quite what constitutes the anorexic statement I’m not entirely sure. All the same, it has a great power of disruption. It’s a stray spoke under the wheel of things that otherwise have the capacity to hurtle on headlong: family life, fashion, the destiny of the female body. The statement might be: help me. Or it might simply be: stop.

My therapist acquaintance herself had not been allowed to be picky in life, growing up in a family of brothers on a farm in the Australian outback. She knew how to shoot, drive a tractor, ride a horse bareback. She had left that rough home and come to the UK, where every couple of years for the sake of change she moved job and town – Slough, Birmingham, Chelmsford – though her solitude and her line of work did not alter. She neither sought nor seemed to expect much in the way of pleasure. In the evenings she made a sandwich and read a book in her rented room; her main meal was lunch in the canteen at the clinic, where food was plentiful and cheap. This somewhat joyless attitude to nourishment could come as no surprise, given that she spent her days among females who regarded the ingestion of a teaspoonful of peas as a physical and spiritual crisis. Once a week she led them to the poolside, skeletal and pale, for all the world to see. Even at the swimming pool these curious beings detected the threat of penetration, of the outside coming in. They didn’t want to get in the water, not, apparently, because they felt self-conscious or exposed, but for fear that they might swallow some of it without its calorific content having been established.

The easiest thing that could be said about my acquaintance was that she herself was impenetrable. Her choice of career must have sprung from some initial attraction to or sympathy with the anorexic state, but most often what she appeared to feel for her waifish charges was irritation, even anger. Anger is a common response, it seems, to the anorexic statement. At the very least, returning from a day spent on the receiving end of that statement, my acquaintance was hard put to feel – as they say – good about herself. If the anorexic is someone for whom the relationship between female being and female image must, on pain of death, be resolved, it may be that she denies that resolution to those who cross her path. They become the witnesses of her vulnerability; as such, she is more real than they. Like with the ascetic of old, her self-denial is a form of chastisement, yet the extremity of her appearance is confusing. Being female, it seeks attention, but of an unusual kind. It asks to be mothered – yet what if its aim is indeed to challenge the reality of the mother-figure and overpower it, to triumph over her, to consign her to flesh and steal her image? The anorexic is out to prove how little she needs, how little she can survive on; she is out, in a sense, to discredit her nurturers, while at the same time making a public crisis out of her need for nurture. Such vulnerability and such power: it brings the whole female machinery to a halt. My acquaintance had tales of rudeness and tantrums and sulks, of behaviour more commonly read about in childcare manuals (of the kind whose purpose, we are told, is to “test the boundaries”), even of a degree of personal insult which at the very least, I suppose, mothers aren’t paid to tolerate. She had no children of her own. And so, in an admirable interpretation of the social contract, she recognised she had something in that line to give.

Jenefer Shute offers some riveting descriptions of such interactions, between the anorexic inpatient Josie and her carers, in her novel Life-Size. “In the body,” Josie chillingly muses, “as in art, perfection is attained not when there’s nothing left to add, but when there’s nothing left to take away.”

Armed with this credo, she can exercise contempt on everyone around her (“They say I’m sick, but what about them, who feast on corpses?”), in what becomes a radical reliving of her primary experiences of nurture. And it needs to be radicalised: this is the moral value of the anorexic statement, that it asks questions not just of mothers or fathers or fashion editors, but of the whole societal basis for the female image. This time around, Josie can speak her mind. She can criticise the people who care for her; she can re-experience the powerlessness of childhood and know it for what it is. So unpleasant is she to the “freckled cow” who nurses her that she finally gets the reprimand she has apparently been asking for:

“Josephine, I must ask you please not to speak to me like that. I’m not your servant.” And then, unable to contain herself: “And would you please look at me when I talk to you? It really gets on my nerves.” Coldly, victoriously, I remain precisely as I am. She really should have more control.

Soon after, however, the 68-pound tyrant, having agreed at last to eat something or be force-fed through a tube, makes a revealing request of her nurse: “I want you to feed me,” she says.

My acquaintance found it hard to muster much interest in herself at the day’s end. She rarely went out or saw people: it was as though her work had bled her of confidence. She sought not public interactions but the determined security of her private boundary. In the evenings she changed into loose clothes, shut herself in her room, shut herself into a book. She wanted to be where no one could demand anything of her, like a depleted mother, except with none of the prestige of motherhood. She never kept company with men, and her female world was wholly predicated on an insidious notion, that certain women are there to give attention and others to receive it. Sometimes it seemed that her patients had indeed stolen her image and left her with nothing to trade, nothing to barter with for some share of the world’s interest. They had stolen her image and left her a mere body that could find no reflection or definition for itself. She went back home for a few weeks on holiday and returned browner, more animated, and heavier. All that meat they went in for, meat roasted over a fire and served at every meal. But more to the point, a world in which food was an entitlement and a human bond.

In her own world food had become a weapon: her evening sandwich and her indifference were a kind of savourless pacifism she exercised against it. She spent her days among people who denied themselves food in order to experience, perhaps, power, whose apparent intention to make themselves invisible made them, in fact, visible, who had discovered that by becoming less they became more. And no­where was this clearer than in the fact that they required her as their witness, for disappearing was no fun unless someone noticed you’d gone. But if anyone was disappearing, if anyone was becoming invisible, it was she.

The question of how she had come to be stranded in this place remains difficult to answer, but its source may lie in the very practicality – the tractors, the horses – she had crossed the world to escape. Denied her own experience of femininity, she had perhaps embarked on a kind of pilgrimage to find and serve these notable victims to the riddling perversity of feminine values. She could help them, sit with them while they wept and shrieked over a teaspoonful of peas, she who had never had the temerity to question or refuse anything she had been given; she who was not important enough, as it were, to be anorexic, for the hieratic significance of the anorexic body depends on it having been ascribed a value in the first place. Had she tried to starve herself on the farm where she grew up, she might simply have died: her protest, in any case, would not have been understood. She had taken photographs of this place, on her recent trip home. In order to capture its isolation, she had photographed it from a distance, recording the miles of surrounding scrubland in a sequence of separate frames that she laid one next to another across the table in a long connecting strip. Amid these featureless wastelands she defied me to locate her home, and though my eyes searched and searched the landscape it was true that I could find no evidence of human habitation. She laughed, with an unmistakable and strangely exhilarated pride, and laid her finger over a low brown shape that crouched amid the boulders and bushes that extended all around it, on and on to the white horizon. It was so small her fingertip covered it. “There it is,” she said.

It may seem superfluous for a 45-year-old mother-of-two to say that she does not exult in the life of the body, but let’s just call it a place to begin. At the very least, as a statement, it raises numerous lines of inquiry. One might be: is it obligatory, or even a moral duty, to take pleasure in one’s own physical being? Leaving aside for a moment the question of what definition of pleasure one could possibly arrive at in this particular hall of mirrors, is the value of the physical quest in any way comparable with that of the artistic, the emotional, the spiritual?

I understand the anorexic’s notion of pleasure far better than the hedonist’s. Sometimes it has seemed to me that the second kind of pleasure is consequent on the first, that the life of sensation can be accessed only from a place of perfect self-discipline, rather as strict religious practices were once believed to constitute the narrow path to heaven. The anorexic, like the ascetic before her, publicly posits the immolation of the flesh as a manifestation of a primary physical discontent she is on her way to escaping: she represents a journey whose starting point is disgust. Body is found to be not only intolerable to but weaker than mind – how, then, can its desires and yearnings be taken seriously? The anorexic statement suggests a second body, one that will be painstakingly encroached on and attained; and hence, a second template for desire. This second body will belong to its owner as the first did not: its desires, therefore, will be experienced as not shameful, but true.

The female form is inherently susceptible to this duality, but the difficulty with the anorexic statement is that once it becomes open to other readings it breaks down. At some point in the journey a line is crossed: the slim body becomes the freakish starved body, and one by one the anorexic’s grounds for superiority are discredited and revoked. She is not beautiful but repellent, not self-disciplined but out of control, not enviable but piteous, and, most disappointing of all, she is publicly courting not freedom and desire but death. Even she may find these things difficult to believe. How to go back, on that journey? How to retrace one’s steps? For in getting where she needed to go the anorexic had to sacrifice the concept of normality. In a manner of speaking she sold her soul. She can never be “normal” about food or flesh again. So, how is she meant to live?

If the anorexic arouses irritation, even anger, it may be this quitting of normality that is to blame, because the female management of normality is a formidable psychical task from which most women don’t feel entitled to walk away. By quitting it she exposes it, she criticises it as a place to live, and moreover she forces each woman who passes her way to choose between denial and recognition of her statement, disgust.

Is it disgusting to be a woman? Menstruation, lactation, childbirth, the sexualisation of the female body – in recognising these things as her destiny, a girl is asked to forget everything that her prepubescent instincts might formerly have suggested to her. In becoming female she must cease to be universal, and relinquish the masculine in herself that permitted her as a child to find the idea of these things disgusting indeed. Likewise that masculine is now embodied for her in men, so the question becomes – do men find women disgusting? The anorexic statement dispenses with that perspective. It returns the woman to the universality of the child, and from that fusion formulates itself: I find myself disgusting.

If it has become a cultural cliché that women want to be thin more than they want to be loved (the three most cherished words these days, so the saying goes, being not “I love you” but “You’ve lost weight”), and moreover that they want to be thin not for men but for one another, the general observer might be tempted to view this as making the case for male innocence (at last!), even male redundancy.

Yet, looked at another way, the male and the preponderance of male values are perhaps more culpable in the incrimination of the female form than ever. An eating disorder epidemic suggests that love and disgust are being jointly marketed, as it were; that wherever the proposition might first have come from, the unacceptability of the female body has been disseminated culturally. Is it possible that disgust has finally got, in the famed male gaze, the upper hand? From whom, after all, has a woman ever wished to hear the words “I love you” but a man?

In Life-Size, Jenefer Shute posits the anorexic state as having two separate sources, one in the female (subjective, mother) and the other in the male (objective, father). Between them they engender in the anorexic subject the confusion between being and image of which one might suppose her to be merely an extreme cultural example. Mother – the female body – is indeed the source of disgust, but it is father – if one can be permitted the leap of seeing father as analogous with male and, indeed, with society – who makes that disgust public and hence catalyses it into shame. Without father, mother might merely have passed her disgust silently on to daughter, where it would have remained as an aspect of her private, interior being. But father brings it to the surface: it is something not just felt but now also seen. These confirmations, in Shute’s narrative, of interior suspicion (am I disgusting?) by outward commentary (yes, you are) are fatal to female self-perception in ways that might seem obvious but are none­theless intractable.

Outside and inside – image and being – are now held to be one: the girl/woman revisits and tests this impossibility by becoming the observer – the male – herself, looking at and remarking on the bodies of other women. Naturally, the discovery that image can be changed is not new: it is and always has been part of becoming a woman, in a sense that, although slenderness has long been a feminine ideal, self-hatred and the compulsion to starve oneself to death have broadly not. The question of disgust returns, accompanied by its shadow, the question of pleasure.

A personal admission: not long ago, in a period of great turmoil, I lost a considerable amount of weight. The first thing to say about this is that I was unaware, inexplicably, that it had happened. That my clothes no longer fitted passed me by: I noticed it only because other people told me so. They appeared shocked: each time I met someone I knew, there it would be, shock, a startled expression on the face. At first, I was startled in turn. They were not seeing who they expected to see; who, then, were they seeing? After a while I got used to it: indeed, I came to expect, almost to require it. A newborn baby needs to be mirrored by another human being in order to grasp that she has an outward surface, that this “self” has an appearance, that her image speaks. Through the shock of others I learned that I, too, had been shocked, that I was no longer the person I once was. My image was speaking, to me as well as to other people, telling me things I did not yet appear to know or realise.

But eventually the question of “normality” returned, as it must in the life of a 45-year-old mother-of-two. Stop, help me, feed me: this may have been my cry, but the truth was there was no one, any more, to answer. There could be no illusion, as an adult; I had left it too late to stage this apotheosis, this defeat of the first body, predicated as it is on the expectation of rescue. I had to draw back from it myself. And this was where the problem arose, because, like the anorexic, I found I could not retrace my steps, could not, as it were, go back to sleep. For years I had lived in my body half-consciously, ignoring it mostly, dismissing its agendas wherever I could, and forever pressing it into the service of mental conceptions that resulted, almost as a by-product, sometimes in its pleasuring and sometimes in its abuse. People were always telling me I should do yoga: this was one of the running jokes I had against my own flesh, for the idea that I would suspend the intellectual adventure of living even for one hour to dwell in the dumb and inarticulate realm of the auto-corporeal was as unappealing as that of spending an evening with someone I disliked. Now, as the weeks passed, instead of shock, my appearance was beginning to elicit milder manifestations of concern. I didn’t know what it meant: had I changed again? Was I no longer fragile and vulnerable? I had no idea. Never before in my life had I dared to be fragile, and all I knew was that I wasn’t ready to leave what I had become. “Have you ever thought of doing yoga?” someone said.

As a teenager I had been tormented by hunger and by an attendant self-disgust, for I saw in other girls a balance, an openness of form, that suggested they had nothing inside of which they need be ashamed. Their bodies were like well-schooled ponies, handsome and obedient, whereas I had a monster inside me whose appeasement was forever disrupting the outward surface of life. It craved so many things it could barely discriminate between them, and so indiscrimination – the failure to distinguish between what mattered and what didn’t, what helped and what didn’t, what it needed and what just happened to be there – became its public nature. It wanted, in fact, what it could get, in the light of what it couldn’t.

How thoroughly the tangible and the in­tangible confused themselves in those years. Creativity, the placement of internal material into space, the rendering tangible, became my weapon against that confusion.

When I left my boarding school – the blue serge uniform and the Cambridgeshire drizzle, the plates of stodge that were so predictable and real, the torturing sense of female possi­bilities that were not – I learned to manage the monster, more or less. Like the first Mrs Rochester it had a locked room of its own, from which it sometimes succeeded in breaking free to rend into shreds my fantasies of femininity, but I had set my mind on higher things. By locking up the monster I was making myself at heart unfree: what did I know of freedom in any case? I was accustomed to fantasy and to the safety – albeit uncomfortable – it supplied, and the notion of an integrated self was the most uncomfortable fantasy of all. In a sense, it was the monster: I could neither kill it nor live with it, and so there it remained, caged, bellowing and banging intermittently through the years, creating perhaps the sense of something amiss in those who came close to me, but caged all the same.

Yoga, understandably enough, was out: nothing could have persuaded me to enter that cage armed only with a sun salute. But my sudden emaciation in middle age did bring me into contact with the monster again, for, amid all the other losses, there in the rubble of the desecrated life, I appeared to see it lying dead at my feet. The Jungian notion of the “middle passage”, in which at mid-life all the templates for self expire or fall away, in which with sufficient destruction one has a chance to return to the blankness of birth, might have explained that death well enough to avoid detection: it simply went up in the fire, the horrible secret, along with everything else. And here, after all, was a chance to be free of my own image, the bind in which my body had held me for all these years, because, while wanting more than anything to be feminine, I had only and ever found my own femininity disgusting. This image, knitted together over time by questions and confirmations (Am I disgusting? Yes, you are), was one I was now prepared to sustain: I was poised to make the anorexic statement, to vanish, to let image and being finally become one.

But of course, no such thing occurs: there is no “letting”, no seamless transposition of the flesh. The anorexic body is held in the grip of will alone; its meaning is far from stable. What it says – notice me, feed me, mother me – is not what it means, for such attentions constitute an agonising test of that will, and also threaten to return the body to the dreaded “normality” it has been such ecstasy to escape.

For the first time since my teenage years I found myself tormented again by hunger: the monster had awoken from its slumber, bigger and more ferocious than ever. The route back to normality being blocked, I have had to devise other ways of getting there, or of seeming to. My occupational therapist acquaintance tells me that many of her patients are women of my age, women who have suddenly tried to slip the noose of their female flesh once its story – menstruation, lactation, childbirth – has been told in all its glory and shame.

When I relate this to my female friends they take it humorously, rolling their eyes and laughing, gallantly owning up – oh yes, they say, we know – to monsters of their own. Most of them haven’t delivered themselves into its jaws quite so thoroughly as I have; their dislike of their own bodies is a kind of low-level irritant, a necessary component of the female environment, but to think about it too much would spoil everyone’s fun.

I don’t want to spoil anyone’s fun, either, though for now I have spoiled my own. It did seem, for a while, as though the death-state of physical denial might contain the possibility of transcendence, the chance to step out of my self-disgust and make true contact at last: contact of my “real”, my second, self with the outer world. That I felt this had always been denied me, that in the negotiation between being and image all, for me, had been lost, was a stark kind of truth to face up to. Passing other women in the street these days, I seem to hear their bodies speaking. A lot of what they say is unclear to me, or at the very least so foreign that it takes me a moment to translate it. For instance: I accept myself. Or: respect me. The ones I like best are the ones that say, trust me. What I will never be able to hear unequivocally, whether whispered or shrieked, is: desire me. Notice me, feed me, mother me. Passing by the anorexic girl, stepping lightly and silently in the shadows, I hear her message and in a way I salute her for it. Other bodies have other messages, but for this one I have ears.

Rachel Cusk is most recently the author of “Aftermath: on Marriage and Separation” (Faber & Faber, £12.99)

This article first appeared in the 05 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, What if Romney wins?

MILES COLE FOR NEW STATESMAN
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The Tory civil war

Even if David Cameron clears the fence marked Brexit, he will find a very deep ditch on the other side.

We all know families who fight and argue in the privacy of their own homes but put on a flawless display in public. So it was, for a few days at least, with the Conservative Party when the campaign for the EU referendum began. Both sides were keen to keep it that way, in the long-term interests of their party. Last month, one MP dressed down Norman Smith, the BBC political reporter, for going on the airwaves and talking about “the Tory civil war”. At that stage, he was perhaps right to do so.

Tempers are, however, beginning to fray. Members of White’s, the St James’s Street club and a foremost lair of the Tory grandee, were recently alarmed to see two of that species, Nicholas Soames MP and David
Heathcoat-Amory, an MP until 2010 and a former Europe minister, going at it hammer and tongs about the European question during the lunch hour. Anyone familiar with Soames’s entertaining Twitter feed, which is currently devoted mainly to savaging fellow Tories in Vote Leave, will know that he is no stranger to technicolor vituperation.

It was, according to the account doing the rounds, a ferocious argument, though no blows were struck. “Nicholas and David have known each other since school,” a friend of both men told me. “They have more in common than separates them. It just shows how fraught things are.” That is certainly true. I well remember Soames, a lifelong pro-European, expressing his genuine dismay that Heathcoat-Amory was defeated in 2010 because a Ukip candidate, standing ironically against a devoutly Eurosceptic Tory, split the vote in his Wells constituency and let in a Lib Dem.

Another MP, using an appropriate public school metaphor for a gentlemen’s club packed with Old Etonians, likened them to boys who are friends but who, once on opposite sides of the sports field, let all hell loose at each other. One does not doubt that Soames’s and Heathcoat-Amory’s regard for each other will survive the referendum. Whether the same can be said for the two sides of the Conservative Party – unequal sides at that – come 24 June is quite a different matter.

The way David Cameron has conducted his wing of the Remain campaign in recent weeks has horrified many Tory MPs, even some who are or were notionally on his side. “The personal attacks and crude propaganda have really upset the party and I don’t think he understands how badly this has gone down in the constituencies,” a Remainer told me.

The personal attacks are certainly out in force. Downing Street has started to brief the media about those in particular disfavour. The Sunday Times reported on 15 May that Priti Patel, the employment minister, had behaved “appallingly” (her crime seemed to have been pointing out the government’s failure to supply enough school places to cope with the recent influx of eastern European immigrants). It also claimed that Cameron was especially angry with Michael Gove – which, since Gove has behaved with politeness and a complete lack of hysteria towards the Prime Minister, suggests that the latter must have a very thin skin indeed. Gove does annoy Cameron and his friends, not because of bad behaviour but because his detailed and measured analysis of what is wrong with the EU is hard to rebut, in contrast to more emotive outbursts by the likes of Boris Johnson that can be swatted aside.

Meanwhile, Cameron has sought to ridicule Bernard Jenkin, one of the most vocal Leavers among MPs, for making a perfectly reasonable observation about the dilution of trade union legislation in return for the unions’ support of Remain. The snide side of the Prime Minister’s character, depressingly familiar to those who deal with him in private, is becoming more and more unchecked as tensions in the campaign rise. There have also been briefings against
Penny Mordaunt, the armed forces minister, and, of course, Johnson. One attempt to terrify the country was to have the Sunday Times splash that, Brexit or not, Johnson would be the next leader and, therefore, prime minister. Downing Street seems not to realise that such an outcome is, for reasons few can fathom, one the general public seems to want.

***

The Tory party has long been a coalition. Most diehard Leavers had no social or personal relations with their colleagues in Remain anyway, so that has not changed. Any breakdown in civilities among others at the moment is, for the most part, temporary. Many take the view of Jacob Rees-Mogg that the result must be binding whatever it is and the party must move on. Equally, many don’t, and if the outcome is a narrow victory for Remain it will be the worst possible result for the Prime Minister.

Those trying to maintain peace in the parliamentary party – and it is important to note that a few dozen MPs have never really been interested in Europe and are showing little interest now – believe that things could have been worse. Veterans say the atmosphere is better than it was during the Major government, in the arguments over the ratification of the Maastricht Treaty and Britain’s inglorious departure from the Exchange Rate Mechanism. That, too, is probably true, when one recalls that nine MPs had the whip withdrawn, John Major described some of his cabinet colleagues as “bastards” and he felt constrained to call a leadership contest to prove his mandate to lead the Tories. However, the vote is still a month away and there is scope for things
to worsen.

With the government and the Whitehall machine distracted by the referendum, other aspects of Conservative rule are causing irritation within the party. There is a sense that the whips and Downing Street have given up trying to take MPs with them on other issues, or to explain why changes of policy are being made. There is little doubt about the fragility of the economy, or that it could go south even if the UK remains in the EU – and George Osborne is felt to be doing too little to demonstrate the proverbial firm hand on the tiller, or to inspire confidence among his colleagues.

The recent U-turn on academy schools has caused particular rage among MPs who had gone to great lengths to explain and defend the previous policy to their constituents. Now they find themselves having to do the opposite and, as one of the less self-regarding said to me, “No pompous Tory MP likes being made to look stupid.” There is a widespread belief even among the more feminist MPs – and, believe it or not, the Tories have them of both genders – that Nicky Morgan has proved she is nothing more than a token presence in the cabinet.

Speculation about what would happen in the event of Brexit – and none of the 20 or so MPs I spoke to in preparing this piece, whatever their allegiances, would rule it out – is now starting to grip the Conservatives and is causing tempers to rise. Nobody seems to want Cameron’s immediate departure if the vote goes against him. There is talk of a “managed, orderly withdrawal” to see the party and the country through the initial shock of the change, with a contest getting under way formally at the Tory conference in October and the process – a vote of the parliamentary party, followed by a plebiscite of the membership to decide between the two most popular candidates – over by early December.

Johnson’s high-profile Brexit campaign is, in effect, the start of his bid for the leadership and why Cameron is so agitated about him. Johnson, as I wrote here in March, has not made the best impression on his fellow MPs since returning to the House last May and it is far from assured that he will be one of the final two candidates. There is also an uncomfortable recognition that he achieved little for London as mayor, other than traffic chaos and a series of vanity projects. “We’d like to do a Checkpoint Charlie-style swap, halfway across Westminster Bridge, with Sadiq Khan,” a Remainer told me.

However, Tory activists forcefully tell their MPs that Johnson is a “winner” who merits support in a leadership vote. Some younger MPs, yet to learn the difference between being a representative and being a delegate, are nervous of disagreeing. Three of them – Nigel Adams, Ben Wallace (a junior Northern Ireland minister and former soldier) and Jake Berry – are running a campaign for Johnson, organising lavish drinks parties for colleagues so the candidate can press the flesh. This irritates older MPs, who see it as a provocative manifestation of ambition and vulgarity that the party could do without.

A prominent Brexiter is almost certain to be in the last two in the leadership contest, be it later this year or in 2019-20, whatever the outcome of the referendum. Whether that is Johnson depends on if he self-destructs during this campaign – his reference to Hitler in his Sunday Telegraph interview on 15 May suggests that is quite possible, given the opportunities ahead. What might entertain the general public – and his unrestrained remarks, such as about President Obama’s Kenyan heritage, probably do –
increasingly angers his colleagues.

It may then be up to Michael Gove to offer himself, something that is said to be unlikely at the moment but that may become less so if things go badly for Johnson. Whatever Cameron thinks of his Justice Secretary, his colleagues have nothing but praise for the way in which he has conducted himself. It is widely thought that, in the event of a Remain victory, Cameron will promote Gove, possibly even to deputy prime minister, as a very public healing of wounds, in an attempt to unify his fractured party.

The favourite to end up in the last two with a Brexiter if there is an early leadership contest is Theresa May, described by one who knows her well as “cold, unfriendly, charmless, not as clever as she thinks she is, lacking imagination, unable to think outside the railway lines and intellectually dishonest”. However, he said that were the choice to be between her and Johnson, “I would, of course, vote for her.”

The wider party probably would not. It is accepted that if Johnson reached the last two, the party in the country would elect him leader. His fate, therefore, lies in the hands of his parliamentary colleagues, whenever the contest comes.

An MP who is a constitutional authority told me of his belief that even if Johnson became leader he would struggle to form a government, because a hard core of pro-Europeans might refuse to support him. Others, knowing the ambitions of their brethren, doubt that but the thought was recently echoed by the former MP Matthew Parris, probably the most articulate columnist writing in support of Cameron, who said on BBC radio that if there were a vote for Brexit he and others like him would leave the party.

***

A victory for Remain might end Johnson’s prime ministerial ambitions and the prospect of such a realignment. But unless that victory is substantial – at least as large as the 55-45 vote in the Scottish referendum – Cameron will struggle: and even that margin of victory in Scotland has not squashed demands for another vote.

The Prime Minister has failed to grasp how many of his MPs are against the EU. A former cabinet minister, not known for hyperbole, told me that “more than 200” of the party’s 330 MPs would vote for Brexit in the privacy of the polling booths. The proportion of Leave activists is even higher. Some MPs still maintain that they can find hardly anyone in their shrunken constituency bases who wants to stay in.

What we are witnessing is the expression of the resentments and tribal hatreds of many years, in a party that has never recovered from the splits after Margaret Thatcher’s 1988 Bruges speech and the Maastricht arguments, or indeed from the conduct of the debate over the UK’s entry into the then EEC during the passage of the European Communities Bill in 1972.

A former minister, a pro-European, said: “Dave is going to have to bring in the people he has alienated but even then it is going to be hard for him to do more than limp on for a couple of years.” Another said the government now, with its small majority, deals with the Tory party on a “issue by issue” basis, seeking just to get over the next hurdle. Even if Cameron clears the Becher’s Brook-style fence marked “Brexit”, he may find a very deep ditch on the other side.

Simon Heffer is a columnist for the Daily and Sunday Telegraph

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Huckster