Has the Conservative Party become a death cult? A few years ago that would not have been a question that it would have occurred to anyone even to ask. But after the publication of YouGov’s most recent polling of its grassroots members, it’s one that’s hard to ignore.
Some 61 per cent were willing to countenance significant economic damage to the British economy in order to leave the EU. And 63 per cent and 59 per cent of members were apparently content to see Scotland or Northern Ireland leaving the UK if that is what it took to get Brexit.
In some ways, even more shockingly, just over half of rank-and-file Tories (54 per cent) thought the destruction of their own party would be a price worth paying for Brexit, with only just over a third (36 per cent) feeling that, at that point, the game would no longer be worth the candle.
So what just happened? How on earth has the membership of an organization traditionally dedicated to the preservation of the Union – and, presumably, the preservation of itself – come to believe that nothing (well, almost nothing: a net 12 per cent thought Jeremy Corby becoming PM would be worse than not getting Brexit) trumped quitting the EU?
Obviously, this hasn’t come out of nowhere. It was in the early 1990s that the Conservative Party first began seriously experimenting with hard Euroscepticism (the idea that we’d have to leave the EU because reform would never deliver what we needed), and after that it began to need more and more of the stuff in order to feed what soon became an increasingly debilitating and expensive habit.
But to go from that to full-on junkie status – to so crave the hit you not only want but need to the point where you no longer really care whether you live or die – is quite something, and has only happened more recently.
That’s even more clearly the case if you recall the summer of 2015. Back then, alongside my colleagues Paul Webb and Monica Poletti, we surveyed Conservative Party members as part of an ESRC-funded research project (that will be published in September as a book called Footsoldiers: Political Party Membership in the 21st Century).
At that moment in time, two-thirds of members told us that they’d wait to see what their then leader (and prime minister) David Cameron came back with from Brussels before making up their minds how to vote in the upcoming EU referendum.
Fast forward to now and two-thirds of Tory members say they want not only Brexit and not only a hard Brexit (where we leave the customs union and the single market) but a no deal Brexit.
There are, of course, myriad reasons that might account for such a change of heart.
One obvious explanation is that Cameron’s renegotiation turned out to be such a damp squib that it proved once and for all to an already pretty hostile party that soft Euroscepticism (the idea that we could get reform from within and opt out of what we didn’t like) wasn’t really going to cut it.
Another is the rise and fall of Ukip, which under Nigel Farage’s breathtakingly brilliant leadership, managed to permanently fuse Euroscepticism and anti-immigration sentiment and, in so doing, represent a serious threat to the Conservative Party’s hitherto unchallenged hegemony over the country’s right-wing voters. It was a threat that the Tories responded to by essentially co-opting the insurgency’s agenda.
That co-option, of course, went on – more or less officially – before, during and after the referendum campaign, accelerating under Theresa May, who literally told members that “no deal was better than a bad deal”.
That notion was then given rocket-boosters by their celebrity-politician favourites like Jacob Rees Mogg and, of course, Boris Johnson, as well as by their favourite newspapers: don’t forget that a third of rank-and-file Tories read the Telegraph and just under a fifth read the Mail. The triumph of the Brexit Party at the European Parliament elections – a triumph no doubt assisted in part not only by Conservative voters but Conservative members – has only served to up the ante even further.
And then, finally, there’s what some insist on calling “entryism” – the promotion of the idea that Brexiteers, and especially former Ukip members, should join the Conservative Party to influence its policies, its choice of candidates and its choice of leader.
Surveys can’t confirm whether this so-called Blukip phenomenon is as real as some of the self-styled victims of it, such as Anna Soubry, have alleged. But what they do seem to show is that well over a third of the current Conservative Party membership joined after the 2016 referendum, which some will take as at least circumstantial evidence and may explain why they care more about Brexit than their party’s long-term survival.
What they also show is that, while no deal wins the support of “only” 60 per cent of those members who had already joined the party by the 2015 election, that figure rises to 70 per cent for those who joined after the 2016 referendum, and to an astonishing 77 per cent of those who became Conservative Party members after the 2017 general election.
In short, attitudes on Europe have hardened among rank-and-file Tories; but part of that hardening is due to the fact that some of those with less strident views on the issue may have left the party only to be replaced by Brexiteer-ultras. That, of course, is democracy. But it’s also bloody good news for Boris Johnson – at least until he risks, as prime minister, having to disillusion and disappoint them.