The British political establishment is in utter chaos—and it may break the Tory party in a fundamental way.
The first choice party of British capitalism is so deeply split it cannot guarantee it can implement any policy on anything. And within weeks Boris Johnson may be the fifth Tory prime minister in a row forced out because of divides over Europe.
The 21 Tory MPs kicked out last week included two former chancellors of the exchequer. All the others bar one had been ministers of some sort.
Other Tory MPs will follow them, stepping down at the inevitable election. And the declining Tory membership is equally volatile.
Some are flirting with the Brexit Party but hoping Johnson will return them to their imagined 1950s—or in the case of Jacob Rees Mogg fans, 1850s—idyll.
From a right wing starting point the balance of the Tory party is shifting rightwards—on crime and immigration in particular—and not just because of views on Brexit.
Tories are fond of quoting the Victorian poet Matthew Arnold to describe their dilemma. The Tories walk between two worlds, “One dead. The other powerless to be born”.
So it is perhaps worth looking at what is dead.
The Financial Times newspaper said, “The Conservative party is going through one of its periodic bouts of self-destructive mass hysteria.”
But there is more to it than that. A Tory party existed in late 17th-century England and a Tory is in government—at the time of writing—in the 21st century.
There is no parallel anywhere else for such continuous existence.
They have intermittently done their best to tear themselves apart, often leading to electoral disaster. Once over the Corn Laws in the 1840s and then after 1900 over “tariff reform”.
In the long term the party’s success meant being adaptable to the needs of British capitalism. If they lose that they will be finished.
The Tories emerged after the English Revolution in the 17th century. The party existed to back the monarchy and the divine right of kings.
It didn’t get anywhere until the threat of revolutionary change at the end of the 18th century when it became a proper party.
The Tories’ resistance to radical change from below was combined with ushering in structures to aid capitalism.
Their refusal to adapt to any pressure from below meant that the Liberals became the dominant party of the British establishment until the 1870s.
The Tories didn’t win a general election from 1841 until 1874. Yet they were in office for all but eight years from 1875 until 1906.
In 1870 Britain produced a third of all the world’s manufacturing goods.
By 1915 it produced just 15 percent. Opposition to this industrial decline and the revival of working class resistance from the 1880s helped the Tories become a cohesive force.
The Tories expanded because they changed to back industrial capitalism.
They drove through a murderous imperial expansion across the globe and brutal attacks on the poor at home.
Partially the party survived by learning to shy away from drastic confrontation whenever it needed to.
In the latter part of the 19th century, the Tories’ seats in parliament expanded.
They went from having three quarters of their seats in the English county shires to adding 51 out of 59 seats in 1895 in Lancashire, Scotland and London.
In 1886 the Liberals broke apart over the issue of home rule for Ireland.
The Tories played on support for the union with Ireland, and for queen and the empire, to build a popular base.
There was a flight of the wealthy and the propertied to the Tories—and the growth of deep hatred towards them from the best of the working class.
This ability to adapt to the needs of the bosses made them successful, and hated. Later Tory leaders built on this with more pragmatism.
In the post-war years the Conservatives went along with the creation of the welfare state. They rightly perceived that such a compromise was necessary to prevent their electoral annihilation.
During the post-war boom they could accept reform and consensus as it suited the bosses.
As major economic crisis reappeared in the 1960s and 1970s, Tory governments turned to confronting workers head on.
By the late 1970s British capitalism required a tougher political outlook—one which did not simply acquiesce to the needs of the bosses, as the Labour Party repeatedly did, but which was fully committed to their views.
The party’s success meant being adaptable to the needs of British capital.
Margaret Thatcher was the architect of the so-called “free market revolution” in the 1980s.
She privatised public services, rolled back workers’ rights and allowed the rich to grab even more wealth.
Thatcher rallied a section of the ruling class but failed to stem Britain’s global decline.
That had a number of consequences. One was a fragmenting of a British ruling class consensus in favour of European integration.
A section of the ruling class believed it had to concentrate on Europe, while another part looked more to the US.
These divisions penetrated deeper into the Conservative Party than into the ruling class. Tory factionalism over Europe became a code for all political differences.
Real tensions in Britain’s economic relationship with Europe provided ready fuel. Tensions deepened under Thatcher’s successor, John Major.
The Conservatives responded to Labour’s landslide win in 1997 by electing as leaders the most right wing and anti-Europe candidates available—William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard.
Each responded to defeat by seeking to mobilise the Tory “core” vote highlighting the “dog-whistle” issues of Europe, immigration and taxes.
In possibly his only insight, Michael Gove described the strategy by quoting Kipling.
“The Dog returns to his vomit and the Sow returns to her Mire, and the Burnt Fool’s bandaged finger goes wabbling back to the Fire.”
By 2005, having failed to resolve the differences, the Tories retreated to getting someone one really posh to do it for them.
But David Cameron, instead of leading them out of the quagmire, jumped into it.
The European Union referendum was supposed to resolve the divisions over Europe in the Tories. Instead it has cemented them.
The most recent paralysis reflects the scale of the shock to the system that the Leave vote was.
For the Tories, the prospect of returning to office has often calmed their divisions. Now that looks less likely than ever.
They have once again found some posh people to take charge. But initially at least, that seems to be making their divisions worse—and possibly terminal.
The 20th century in British mainstream politics was the Conservative century, with the Conservatives remaining the natural party of government for most of it.
They look very unlikely to repeat the performance.
In four decades from 1951 to 1992, the Tories won a parliamentary majority in eight out of 12 elections.
In the quarter-century since then they have won a majority once in six elections. In the early 1950s the Conservatives had 2.7 million members. It has 160,000 now.
There is no Conservative association today with a thousand members.
The greatest previous split the party suffered was in 1846, when 220 Conservatives abandoned Sir Robert Peel to vote against him over the repeal of the Corn Laws. Peel’s hundred-odd loyalists operated independently for a time before merging with the Liberals.
For nearly 30 years the Conservatives were unable to win a Commons majority. “Never do a Peel” used to be a slogan in top Tory circles.
While the divisions and the chaos at the top could produce a similar result, it is not guaranteed.
To drive a stake into the heart of the Tories and finally finish them will take a real revolt from below.