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13 February 2019updated 09 Sep 2021 3:59pm

From Robert Peel to the SDP, the history of party splits shows the danger Brexit poses for May and Corbyn

History suggests that the break-up of one or both parties would not be an unrealistic outcome – but only one leader is behaving as if they have studied and learned from the lessons of their party’s past history.

By Laura Beers

Last week, Jeremy Corbyn sent Theresa May a letter, in which he laid out five demands required to ensure Labour support for the government’s Brexit plan. On Sunday, she responded.

Both leaders are facing serious division within their party ranks, and the real possibility of a party split. History suggests that the break-up of one or both parties would not be an unrealistic outcome – but only one leader is behaving as if they have studied and learned from the lessons of their party’s past history.

It’s May who has most to fear from historical precedent, and she knows it.  If she is not careful, she risks a potentially unmendable rift within her own party over the two issues which broke apart the Conservative party in the nineteenth century – trade and Ireland. Her brisk reply to Corbyn, shutting down the possibility of a permanent customs union between Britain and the EU (despite enthusiasm from Brussels for Corbyn’s proposals), reflects her unwillingness to pass a bipartisan Brexit deal without the votes of the hundred or so members who support the European Research Group’s strident opposition to surrendering Britain’s independent trade policy.   

May is determined not to end up like the 19th century Tory prime minister Sir Robert Peel. He successfully repealed the Corn Laws, which imposed taxes on imported grain, and heralded in a near-century of free tradel but did so at the cost of splitting his party and ending his political career.

Peel was committed to the Conservative party, whose modern reinvention he had engineered with his Tamworth Manifesto of December 1834, in which he branded as Conservative the political commitment to reforming, when necessary, in order to preserve the established order. Although he personally had gradually been converted from a belief in the social value of tariffs to a pro-free trade stance, he resisted forcing the issue on a hostile Conservative party until circumstances in Ireland convinced him of the necessity of action.

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The Irish crisis was not the threatened return of a hard border (the entirety of Ireland had been incorporated into the United Kingdom in 1801), but the potato famine, whose devastation made the importation of cheap food a national emergency. Faced with this clear and present danger across the Irish sea, Peel pled with his cabinet ministers to reconsider their stance on repeal.

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Only three ministers supported his proposals. Faced with the opposition of his colleagues, Peel stalled for time and sought to find common ground.  Then, while Peel was trying to get his cabinet ducks in a row, the opposition leader, Lord John Russell, published a letter making the case for free trade, a letter which Peel felt forced his hand.

A good deal of political wrangling followed before Peel ultimately put forward a bill for repeal of the Corn Laws on 27 January 1846.  The bill passed into law five months later on the backs of opposition Whig and Liberal support. The final vote was 327 to 229, with only 112 Tories supporting the measure.

Peel had done what he felt he needed to do to ensure the prosperity of the country and save Ireland from calamity, but in so doing he destroyed his party.  It took a few years for both sides to accept that the wounds of 1846 could not be healed.

But by 1852, when the ‘Peelite’ Lord Aberdeen formed a coalition government with the Whigs and Liberals, both sides had given up hope of reunification. William Ewart Gladstone, the great Liberal prime minister who began his life as a Conservative, believed that Peel deserved particular censure for his role in breaking up the party, beyond his decision to push the issue of repeal. “It might have been in his power to make some provision for the holding together, or for the reconstruction, of that great Party which he has reared,” Gladstone wrote. “But although that party was the great work of so many years of his matured life, his thoughts seem simply to be ‘it has fallen; there let it be’. A greater idea still had overshadowed it, the idea of his Country, now become the Stewardess of the inheritance of his fame.”   

May will not retread Peel’s course. The prime minister is incapable of placing the idea of country above the idea of the Conservative Party. Not even the prospect of an Irish catastrophe is enough to make her risk irrevocably splitting the unstable and contradictory Tory coalition.

Corbyn, by contrast, appears willing to take the risk of splitting his party to ensure an orderly Brexit, even as history hints at the real possibility of the leader’s strategy resulting in a party split. The Labour party was only officially constituted a century ago, but in the 100 years of its existence the party has split apart not once but twice.

When Corbyn made his letter to May public, Labour critics, including former transport minister Tom Harris, immediately warned that Corbyn’s proposals for a soft Brexit based around permanent membership in the customs union would be viewed as the last betrayal by remainers within the Labour party, and precipitate a third schism. Chuka Umunna, Chris Leslie and other centrist, pro-Remain rebels’ refusal to quell rumours of a split have encouraged historical analogies to 1981 and the departure of the “Gang of Four” ex-ministers (David Owen, Shirley Williams, Bill Rodgers and Roy Jenkins) to form the Social Democratic Party. 

A less accessible, but perhaps more appropriate, analogy would be to October 1931, when the Labour leader Ramsay MacDonald and a select group of his supporters broke with the majority of their party to pass a drastic austerity budget supported by Conservative members but opposed by the majority of the Labour party. MacDonald believed he was acting in the national interest. The majority of the party saw him as a traitor and formally expelled him from their ranks.

It’s unlikely that Corbyn’s decision to offer an olive branch to May will lead to a successful leadership challenge, let alone his expulsion from the party. (It’s Corbynites who are threatening to remove Labour remainers, not the other way around.) Still, the historical omens for the Labour party’s ability to bridge a seemingly insurmountable ideological divide do not augur well.

Nonetheless, Corbyn is willing to risk splitting his party to ensure an orderly Brexit, whereas May is not. It may prove impossible to find a compromise that can carry both the ERG and bring on board a handful of Lexiteer votes, but it is the only viable alternative to the chaos of a No Deal Brexit. The lesson which May has taken from history is that it is better to stand back as Britain and Ireland hurl towards the cliff’s edge than to risk a Tory split by putting country before party.

Dr Laura Beers as an Associate Professor of History at the American University, Washington, DC.