Daily Mail

A shadowy Tory cabal and how Brexit could still rip the party in two

- PETER OBORNE

FOR the past 25 years, the Tory Party has been convulsed by a bitter civil war over our membership of the European Union. The feuding has been so vicious that for long stretches, the party has been virtually ungovernab­le.

So when the British people voted to leave Europe last year, and Theresa May was elected party leader and Prime Minister to near universal acclaim, there was a collective sigh of relief.

Most observers believed the party would unite around Mrs May as she led us confidentl­y out of Europe.

I am now convinced that this analysis was premature. In fact, I predict that the Conservati­ve Party is on course for one last apocalypti­c battle over Britain and the European Union.

This will be different from the others in one respect. It will not concern British

membership of the EU. no attempt will be made to reverse the outcome of the referendum last June. However, the looming conflict will concern the terms on which we leave.

I can report that a number of Conservati­ves are profoundly disappoint­ed by last week’s statements from both Theresa May and her Brexit minister, David Davis.

Many Tory MPs — and I guess the majority of party activists — had been looking for what they call a ‘clean break’ from the EU.

In her comments accompanyi­ng the Article 50 notificati­on to Brussels last week, Theresa May made clear that a clean break is the very last thing she has in mind.

SHE has listened hard to lobbying from business, from the City, the Civil Service, the intelligen­ce services and even the Trades Unions, all of whom are pressing for British departure from the EU to be as friendly as possible.

In other words, relatively little will change.

I believe this approach to our new relationsh­ip with Brussels may well be common sense. But as night follows day, it is certain to generate claims that Mrs May has betrayed the British voters.

Many Conservati­ves are concerned that she means for Britain to stay in the EU in all but name. These fears have been inflamed by reports that her husband, Philip, a City figure whose views carry weight at home, is a passionate Remainer.

The areas of concern over which accords must somehow be struck between London and Brussels are numerous.

However, the three most significan­t involve the headline issues which dominated the referendum campaign last year. First, red tape. Mrs May and David Davis made it plain as a pikestaff last week that a great many EU regulation­s are here to stay if Britain wants to carry on doing business with Brussels.

In private, Mr Davis calls the so-called Great Repeal Bill — in which Parliament is supposed to bring thousands of areas currently governed by EU regulation back under British law — The Great Continuity Bill. So will we be free in a single bound from European red tape? Forget it!

The second contentiou­s issue is money. The Vote Leave side repeatedly claimed on posters and in their literature that leaving the EU would bring £350 million a week back to Britain. Forget it! That’s not going to happen.

The main negotiatin­g team is candid that payments to Europe will continue. I understand that, privately, David Davis says he expects to pay between £9 billion and £16 billion in order to guarantee access to key EU markets.

The third and most inflammato­ry issue is, of course, immigratio­n. British voters were promised control of national borders. Once again, forget it! Both David Davis and Mrs May, under pressure from business, have made it clear that foreign migration into Britain will continue.

There are plenty of Tory MPs who take the view that Mrs May is simply being pragmatic. These loyalists understand that Britain must retain a warm relationsh­ip with the EU, and that there will, of course, be a price to pay for that.

But some others believe that readiness to give in on the central issues upon which the referendum was fought is a grievous betrayal. This week, those voices were not heard amid the euphoria following the dispatch of the Article 50 letter to Brussels.

But be assured of one thing: they will not remain silent for long. For I can reveal that Conservati­ve MPs are already starting to rally around an organisati­on called the European Research Group.

The members include many of the key figures in the Vote Leave campaign.

This group communicat­es secretly through WhatsApp, the internet messaging system which cannot be hacked (and which, by coincidenc­e, was used by Khalid Masood minutes before the recent Westminste­r terrorist attack).

The European Research Group has some of the characteri­stics of a party within a party. Significan­tly, it organises members on other issues apart from Europe, and more pertinentl­y, is capable of mustering significan­t numbers of Tory MPs. For example, it was responsibl­e for the powerful letter sent to the BBC ten days ago complainin­g about biased coverage of Brexit. Some MPs hostile to this group are already comparing it — unfairly in my view — to Labour’s Militant Tendency at the start of the Eighties.

Its officers include highly respected party figures such as Jacob Rees-Mogg and Wycombe MP Steve Baker, while senior figures such as Iain Duncan Smith are supporters.

At present, this group is loyal. But I predict that the triumphali­sm in the Brexit camp will soon diminish as further details of Mrs May’s negotiatio­ns emerge.

AnD when that happens, the mood of optimism in the Conservati­ve Party, which has held sway in recent months, is likely to become more acrimoniou­s as time goes by.

And finally, when Mrs May presents her Brexit deal to the Commons in early 2019, do not rule out the danger that the Tory Party could split in half, in one final epic convulsion.

In such circumstan­ces, if Mrs May is to survive as Prime Minister, she will need to depend on the support of Labour, the Liberals and the SnP. For that reason, I do not believe we should count on this government surviving until the official election day in 2020.

Though she is determined not to do so, Mrs May would be best advised to go to the country for an endorsemen­t of her Brexit strategy before then.

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