As the smoke clears at the end of one hell of a week at Westminster, Theresa May has to choose between her party and her country. Either she decides to risk the UK crashing out of the EU without a deal on March 29 or she pivots to pursue a softer Brexit with the help of the Opposition, thereby risking the wrath, and perhaps even the departure, of some of her own MPs.
She could do worse than recall the very different fates of two of her predecessors who faced the same dilemma. Both put what they saw as the national interest first. But only one emerged — and only then, eventually — with their reputation enhanced.
In May 1846, Sir Robert Peel, founder of the Metropolitan police and prime minister since 1841, defied the dearest wishes of large numbers of his Conservative colleagues and, with the assistance of the Opposition, finally repealed a system of tariffs that had rendered desperately needed imports of grain prohibitively expensive.
The parliamentary response of those colleagues, led by the Boris Johnson of his age, Benjamin Disraeli, was swift and brutal. As one diarist recorded, “they screamed and hooted at him in the most brutal manner. When he vindicated himself, and talked of honour and conscience, they assailed him with shouts of derision and gestures of contempt … They hunt him like a fox, and they are eager to run him down and kill him in the open, and they are full of exultation at thinking they have nearly accomplished this object.”
Not surprisingly, a month or so later, Peel was forced to resign as PM and surrender the leadership. And although his party was by no means crushed at the next general election, it had effectively split into factions so irreconcilable that it took nearly three decades before it could convincingly claim to have returned to power. In the meantime, the Peelite faction had left the Tories to help form the Liberal Party, going on to supply it with probably its greatest ever prime minister, William Gladstone.
Yet, writing to a friend a year after he had lost office, Peel (who sadly died in 1850 after a fall from his horse) was clear-eyed about the choice he’d made and confident that he’d made the right call. “It was impossible,” he said, “to reconcile the repeal of the Corn Laws by me with the keeping together of the Conservative Party, and I had no hesitation in sacrificing the subordinate object, and with it my own political interests.”
Fast forward from the 19th to the 20th century and to 1931. This time, the politician faced with choosing between party and country was a Labour prime minister, Ramsay MacDonald. His minority Labour government, faced with Conservative demands that it cut welfare payments to the very poorest to preserve the public finances and the parity of the pound, saw the Cabinet split down the middle. Instead of resigning and telling the Tories to do their own dirty work, or perhaps precipitating a general election, MacDonald decided to form a National Government with (and, indeed, dominated by) the Conservatives.
Yet despite the fact that MacDonald would go on to lead that government as PM until 1935, enabled so to do by winning the largest Commons majority (500 seats) this country has ever seen, he — in marked contrast to Peel, to whom posterity has proved rather kind — has gone down British political history as a turncoat and a failure. Why? The difference in their respective fates surely comes down to whether the solutions they sought and the realignments they triggered made underlying sense — at least in hindsight.
Peel is seen to have done the right thing for the right reasons. Accurately or otherwise, his decision is linked both to a principled belief in free trade and a laudable desire to do something about Ireland’s Great Famine, which in the course of just two years saw more than a million people perish in a country, remember, that at the time was officially part of the UK. Nor could the Conservatives — as Disraeli himself eventually acknowledged — afford to stay stuck representing the agricultural and aristocratic interest in a country that was rapidly industrialising and already set on the road to democracy.
MacDonald, on the other, did the wrong thing for the wrong reasons. Always prey to the Establishment’s embrace, he was too easily persuaded (by the King, no less) of his own indispensability. The cuts he imposed managed to be both unfair and unconvincing: they hit the poorest hardest but failed in the end to convince the markets.
Moreover, the resulting realignment at Westminster proved paltry and short-lived. Hardly any Labour MPs joined MacDonald, and those who did were, like him, quickly expelled from the party. Those who stayed held together through the hard times and within 15 years won themselves a landslide majority over a Tory Party widely (if not always fairly) blamed for the “Hungry Thirties”.
Mrs May opened this week’s debate on the meaningful vote by begging MPs to think about “when the history books are written”. She should do so, too. By reaching out beyond her party she can secure an agreement that makes far more sense for the future of the country than the deal Parliament has so resoundingly rejected. If some Tory MPs, blinded by ideology and imperial nostalgia, cannot see that, then the PM should let them go. A truly 21st-century Conservative Party could very well be better off without them.