The Conservative party is a ticking time bomb ready to explode over the issue of Brexit.
On camera, UK prime minister Theresa May and the rest of the ruling Tory party put on a united front. The prime minister received a standing ovation on Sunday when she declared “Brexit means Brexit and we are going to make a success of it.”
But, behind the scenes, in the many fringe events and receptions taking place in Birmingham as part of the party’s annual get-together, battle lines are being drawn between Brexiteers and those who wanted Britain to Remain in the European Union.
“We are no longer in the tent — what do we do now?” is what one pro-EU member told BI at an event hosted by the Conservative Group for Europe. “They [the party] isn’t reaching out to the members who voted Remain,” another said.
May in her speech said that the Remain camp “have still not accepted the result of the referendum,”, and that “it is up to the government not to question, quibble or backslide on what we have been instructed to do, but to get on with the job.”
With Labour in a state of ideological warfare between the party’s hard-left and moderate factions, it’s easy to underestimate the scale of what is brewing within the Tories at the moment.
Europe, the issue which has split the party since the premiership of Margaret Thatcher, is more prominent than ever after Britain voted to leave the EU on June 23.
On Sunday, in a packed room in the Hyatt Regency hotel, which is being hired by the Tories to host a series of conference events, pro-EU party members discussed their plan of action having witnessed Brits vote to leave.
“A hard Brexit means a harsh Brexit,” is what MP and group chair Neil Carmichael declared. “We need to work together to make the best of a very difficult set of circumstances.”
For so long, being pro-EU was the mainstream position. To be an anti-EU Tory MP probably meant you had spent your career on the backbenches. Now, the party line is pro-Brexit, and hundreds of pro-EU Tories feel like outsiders.
This feeling was summed up by a Tory councillor who spoke to BI. He said: “Fox and Davis used to be on the fringe of the party. They used to be lonely figures. Fox, in particular, has got a group of supporters who are pretty visceral.”
Now, the pair, along with Boris Johnson, oversee the government’s three crucial Brexit ministries.
Fox is a particularly unpopular figure with many in attendance. One guest, a former director of the British Chamber of Commerce (BCC), was handing out pamphlets titled ‘The Deaf Adder: The Malice of Liam Fox.”
I was just at a pro-EU event where a former BCC director was giving out pamphlets titled “The Deaf Adder: The Malice of Liam Fox” #CPC16 pic.twitter.com/WjP54wrmfO
— Adam Payne (@adampayne26) October 2, 2016
The 11-page document, complete with graphs and statements Fox has made in the past about Britain’s post-Brexit trade relationships, attacks the hardliner Brexiteer in the harshest possible terms.
In the introduction, it reads (emphasis ours):
“This pamphlet has one purpose: to expose the vulgar, crude and intemperate speech made by Liam Fox to Conservative Way Forward and recorded verbatim in The Times of 10th September.”
“The following Monday, the Secretary of State for Business Energy and Industrial Strategy and the other ministers for the department cringed with embarrassment in the House of Commons when reference was made to Liam Fox’s characterisation of Britain’s exporters as fat and lazy.
“As this pamphlet demonstrates, the characterisation was vicious and unwarranted.”
Fox, who has indicated support for a hard-Brexit as oppose to staying in the single market, took some swipes of his own at party members who are more sympathetic to the softer approach to leaving the 28-nation bloc.
Speaking at a fringe event which BI attended on Sunday, he criticised Remainer and former prime minister David Cameron for “banning” civil servants from planning for a Brexit prior to the June referendum.
“I happen to think during the referendum some of this work should have been done. The fact civil servants were banned from doing this was a big mistake in my opinion,” he said.
He also took swipes at Conservative MPs Anna Soubry, George Osborne, and Ken Clarke, who have all criticised the government’s approach to handling Brexit in the last week.
“If you’re outside government you don’t what discussions are taking place,” he told the audience.
Despite the Tory leadership’s best efforts to portray unity, the party is in the early stages of a split which could spill over into all-out warfare in the coming months.
Follow @BIUK and @adampayne26 on Twitter for daily coverage of what’s going on at the 2017 Conservative Party conference.