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7 July 2016

Divides run deep in the Conservative party – could they cost Theresa May the leadership?

The division between Tory Remainers and Leavers is visceral and will not heal easily.

By Simon Heffer

The knifings, hysteria, hypocrisy, posturing and dishonesty of the Tory leadership campaign have exceeded even what the party regards as par for the course. As a training ground for our public life, the Oxford Union Society has much to answer for. Talk of a coronation for Theresa May angered supporters of her two main rivals, Michael Gove and Andrea Leadsom. Both went to the media to stress that May was a Remainer, but the will of the people is that Britain leaves the European Union. These are early days but this reminds older Tories of the division between appeasers and re-armers in 1938-39. When R A Butler failed to persuade the party’s “magic circle” to anoint him in 1957 and in 1963, the taint of his having been an appeaser lingered still. The divisions between Remainers and Leavers are similarly visceral and will take more than a leadership election and a new prime minister to heal.

Most Tory Remainers avoid rhetoric about a second referendum, a legal challenge or hoping that Article 50 will never be invoked. But the behaviour of some in the referendum campaign has bred grudges, with the most outspoken Remainers – George Osborne, Anna Soubry and Amber Rudd are often cited – regarded as “unforgiveable” and marked for their political lives. May was not so blatant in her support for Remain, which is now being held against her as proof that she lacks the courage of her convictions and therefore leadership qualities.

The latest antagonism is over Gove’s behaviour towards Boris Johnson. The glib reaction about Gove’s “treachery”, advanced by careerists disobliged by his rival’s withdrawal (Johnson’s team had been campaigning nakedly for support in a putative leadership contest for weeks), is only one side of the argument. Gove realised that Johnson, without the Vote Leave team behind him, was fundamentally shambolic: he appeared to be offering the same cabinet jobs to various potential supporters, compounding his reputation for duplicity. The reality check that Gove imposed on Johnson was undeniably good for politics, even if not for him. More MPs than were prepared to admit it were mightily relieved and deserted, hence the evaporation of Johnson’s campaign.

This opened the door for Andrea Leadsom, a Brexiteer to her fingertips and one without the badge of an assassin. Far more socially conservative than Gove, she picked up many of Johnson’s supporters, with a further flush coming in once Johnson himself backed her, not least because she was “trustworthy”. Then the mud flew at her: her apparent benefits from some creative tax arrangements, her allegedly indifferent record as a Treasury minister (from which she was moved after a year) and her supposed sympathies with Ukip – Arron Banks, who financed Nigel Farage’s ultimately successful Leave.EU campaign, also offered to fund Leadsom. However, other Tories argue that a Ukip-friendly leader would attract many former Tory voters back to the party, thus ensuring electoral success – especially if the post-Farage Ukip implodes.

It may be hard for non-Conservatives to believe, but May’s weakness in a fight against Gove and especially against Leadsom stems from her speech as chairman to the 2002 party conference, which outraged legions of activists who resented being called heartless bigots. “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally are our sympathies,” she said. “You know what some people call us – the nasty party.” The implication was that the party had alienated the poor, ethnic minorities and homosexuals.

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There certainly was an appalling deficiency of black and Asian people in the party at all levels. But the reasons for the unpopularity were more complex than May wanted to have her audience believe – rooted, her critics still believe, in the failure of the Major government to take responsibility for the humiliation of Black Wednesday in 1992. Many believe to this day that she was self-flagellating in an attempt to gain sympathy.

Leadsom has little to show for her ministerial career but many Tory MPs (and not just Leavers) regard May as an incompetent Home Secretary. Around two-thirds of Tory members favoured Leave, notably to secure border controls. May has failed to limit immigration from outside the EU. That the latest annual figure – 333,000 – was three times the level David Cameron had promised rests at her door. It is down to her, too, that Britain’s coastline is protected by only three cutters and therefore entirely porous. That 333,000 figure is not even precise: it is an estimate, because the absurdly named UK Border Force hasn’t a clue how many are entering the country.

In his recently published memoirs, the former Lib Dem minister David Laws portrayed May as rigid, controlling, uncommunicative and thoroughly dislikable. (Ken Clarke called her “a bloody difficult woman” in comments caught by a Sky camera.) Tory MPs – even some who have reluctantly backed her campaign – add other adjectives to the list. No wonder May’s supporters wanted a coronation. In the few fevered days Tory MPs have to consider which two colleagues should be put before the wider membership, scrutiny of her could barely begin. Leadsom, as a woman, invites a direct comparison and, for all her inexperience, seems brisker, warmer, more spontaneous and has the benefit of relative novelty. She was rewarded by finishing second behind May in the first round of voting by MPs.

In the days of the magic circle, May would have been in Downing Street by now, continuing her unthreatening policy of liberal conservatism. Now, having sequestered the support of MPs who dream of a chauffeur-driven car and a private office, she must endure eight weeks of relentlessly making herself attractive to the sort of Tories she once regarded as “nasty”.

Simon Heffer writes for the Telegraph

This article appears in the 06 Jul 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit bunglers