Defeat for moderation that will limit options

To paraphrase an enduring British Conservative icon — there are such individuals — never in the field of political conflict were so many in thrall to so few.

The 124,000 (a 2018 figure) members of the Conservative Party will shortly elect a successor to Theresa May and set the tone for a resumption of the Brexit process, at least the tone on the British side of the equation.

Though that figure may have shrunk since Nigel Farage set up his latest party of convenience, it suggests that 0.189% of the UK population of 66.04m have a decisive role in their country’s future.

This tiny figure is, at best, a challenge to the spirit of democracy but in a radical evolution shaped by tiny margins — 48/52 — it is not surprising.

What should cause a pause is that if around half that membership — say 60,000 — supported a Brextremist, it would have a profound impact on British society and politics, Ireland’s society, economy and security, and send a modest ripple across the EU — population 508m. Hardly democratic legitimacy writ large.

That this point has been reached because of a referendum won by grossly dishonest campaigning adds to the unease around the regressive misadventure.

As the third anniversary of the vote approaches, those realities have been set aside despite a campaign sailing as close to a bloodless putsch as is possible. Analysis suggesting the vote was as much an anti-Westminster vote as an anti-EU one adds to those concerns.

That unease was exacerbated yesterday. One hardline Brexiteer after another demanded the next Tory leader must confront the EU and renegotiate the deals rejected thrice by the Commons.

This suggests a rump of that dysfunctional party imagines the EU will capitulate and offer terms better than those enjoyed by member states.

This is fantasy writ large and confirms Tánaiste Simon Coveney’s assertion that the inability of the British system to see beyond party politics is “extraordinary”. He and EU negotiators have expressed frustration with Britain’s stance.

If Britain’s bookmakers are right, there is every prospect that that frustration will deepen. Boris Johnson is favourite to succeed Ms May, a burden he also carried in 2016. That dire prospect is, however, challenged by history. The procedure for electing a Tory leader was introduced in 1965 and since then only one favourite has won — Michael Howard, who stood unopposed in 2003.

There is also the probability the bookies are drumming up a profitable proposition and, like so many Brexiteers, ignoring reality to achieve their objective.

Ms May will, like too many of her predecessors, be remembered as a leader broken by Tory eurosceptics. Her task was all but impossible but she made it even more difficult by a career-defining error — needlessly calling the 2017 election.

That humiliation forced her to embrace the DUP, a partnership of desperation lubricated by blatant bribery. That “deal” is due for renewal, and the attitude of the next prime minister will be central in how the North’s power games, and the mothballed Stormont, play out. That the majority of contenders have shown disinterest in the wee North is a cause of justified concern.

So too, in the greater scheme of things, is the defeat of Ms May. Though she failed to deliver Brexit, she tried to do it in a way that was not absolute, and recognised that her country was evenly split on the idea.

If the bookies are right, that openness to compromise will be lost. This would be another blow for moderate, inclusive politics and exacerbate polarisation.

No one, Brexiteer, Remainer, eurosceptic or supporter of the European project, can afford that. Compromise is, after all, the lubricant of success, a truth ignored in today’s toxically divided Conservative party.

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