Tories face ‘nervous breakdown’ at conference

Torn rosette: The Conservative Party has been arguing about Europe for at least 50 years.

Should the party split in two? At their annual conference, the Conservatives are suffering a crisis of confidence. The agenda is overshadowed by a raging dispute about the party’s future.

Party conferences are often compared to Glastonbury: they are crowded, boozy, chaotic affairs. At this year’s Conservative Party gathering, the chaos is emphasised.

On Sunday, the conference opened in Manchester amid large protests against the government and Brexit. Yesterday, backbencher Jacob Rees-Mogg’s speech was disrupted by more protesters. Meanwhile, on the conference’s fringes, simmering tensions in the party are boiling over.

These tensions largely concern Brexit. Tories bitterly disagree over whether to aim for a “soft Brexit” – close economic ties to the European Union – or the complete break of a “hard Brexit”. This issue ties into a broader debate about the purpose of “conservatism”, intensified by the party’s poor performance in June’s election. Theresa May, the prime minister, seems torn.

The result is a party civil war. Even cabinet ministers, who are meant to agree on major policies, are fighting. In particular, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has undermined the government’s official position on Brexit in a provocative article. Some of his colleagues are warning that he could be sacked; others are saying that May herself must go.

The party has weathered several wars in its very long history. In the 1840s, many MPs left in protest over the leadership’s decision to repeal the protectionist Corn Laws and pursue free trade. They teamed up with the opposition to form the Liberal Party. Half a century later, the Tories lost more MPs to the Liberals after another dispute over trade tariffs.

In recent decades such splits have been rare, not least because the UK’s political system discourages small, new parties. But the current discord among Tories is so great that some predict another mass defection. In August, pro-EU MP Anna Soubry threatened to quit the party in the case of a hard Brexit – and take others with her.

As Ruth Davidson, leader of the Scottish Tories, said yesterday, the Conservatives are on the verge of a “nervous breakdown”. What is the cure?

The power and the Tory

Some say the Conservatives must split. The ideological divide between liberal, Europhile Tories and nationalist, anti-immigration ones cannot be bridged. The civil war is distracting the leadership and putting voters off. If the world’s oldest party wants to survive, it must take a clear position on Brexit – and lose those who disagree with it.

Others reply that would be suicide. If one large party is replaced by two smaller ones, they will both struggle to gain power again. Only Labour will benefit. The leadership must do what any successful party would: be decisive, and force its MPs to fall in line. This will work, as everyone knows that the alternative is worse.

You Decide

  1. If you had to join one political party, which would it be, and why?
  2. If the Tories split along Brexit lines, which half should keep the Conservative Party name and brand?


  1. In groups, create a new political party. Come up with a name, logo, motto and manifesto with 10 policies.
  2. Write a 1,000-word answer to the question: “Are Labour’s divisions even more severe than the Conservatives’?” Start by reading The Economist’s article in Become An Expert.

Some People Say...

“A political party that agrees on everything cannot be truly democratic.”

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The UK is due to leave the EU in March 2019. May‘s position is that the nation will then enter a transition period of “around two years”, during which it will probably continue to follow EU rules. She has promised to protect EU citizens now living in the UK. Meanwhile negotiations with the EU continue, but May insists that “no deal is better than a bad deal”. She will speak at the conference tomorrow.
What do we not know?
The government has yet to clarify its stance on some key issues, such as what will happen on the Irish border and how much it will pay the EU as part of the “divorce bill”. Broadly, we still do not know whether it will fight for a hard or soft Brexit. Then there is the chance there will be an election before 2019, May is kicked out and everything changes.

Word Watch

Party conferences
Each party holds a conference every autumn to debate its future and announce new policies. Senior politicians deliver big speeches, while less prominent members and interest groups organise unofficial meetings on the fringes.
Provocative article
In his article for The Telegraph last month, Johnson set out his personal vision for Brexit, diverging from the government on important areas. The article was widely seen as the prelude to a leadership challenge.
When a government seeks to give an advantage to its country’s industries by taxing imports, it is being protectionist.
Liberal Party
After their heyday at the turn of the 20th century, the Liberals went into decline, then merged with the Social Democrats in 1988 to form the Liberal Democrats.
Unlike in many European countries, small parties in the UK are rarely given power as part of a coalition.
World’s oldest party
This is debatable. The USA’s Democratic Party was founded before the modern Conservative Party, but groups of politicians identifying as Tory predate the existence of the USA.

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