On the morning of May 9 1940, third day of the Norway debate in the House of Commons, Conservative chief whip David Margesson summoned a succession of the party’s rebels, who had voted with Labour against the Chamberlain government the previous night over its handling of the war. John Profumo, then a new MP who was among them, told me that Margesson gazed at him with contempt for some seconds, before saying: “I hope you realise that for the rest of your life you will have to live with your shame about what you did last night.”
It is sometimes suggested that Tories are pragmatists, who care much more about the acquisition and maintenance of power than about pursuing any principle. Arch-conservative Evelyn Waugh observed acidly: “The Conservative party have never put the clock back a single second.”
Such savage encounters as those accompanying the Norway debate, which brought down the prime minister and caused MPs loyal to Neville Chamberlain, such as “Chips” Channon, to shout “quislings!” and “rats!” at the rebels, remind us that the party’s history is nonetheless landmarked with bloody feuds.
Yet, although there have been past explosions of passion, there has never been a moment which bears comparison in its viciousness with this week’s expulsion of the party’s 21 rebels.
Most are politicians of much greater distinction and longer service than Boris Johnson, the prime minister. Those consigned to outer darkness are led by Winston Churchill’s grandson and two former chancellors. Their crime was to seek to frustrate, through parliament, the supreme recklessness of a no-deal Brexit.
Sir Ian Gilmour, a pro-European Tory grandee, wrote about the rise of the right in 1997: “Like some crazed American religious cult, the Conservative parliamentary party seemed intent on mass suicide.” He added of John Major, the then prime minister: “Unlike such cults, however, its leader was not intent on persuading his followers to commit suicide, he was merely unable to talk them out of it.”
That has now changed. The party is being rushed towards the cliff-edge by its own leader. My own hunch is that Mr Johnson’s desperate gamble will succeed in its own terms, because of the bizarre symmetry between himself and Jeremy Corbyn, the only conceivable Labour leader he may be able to defeat at an early general election.
By adopting the Trump playbook — a full-frontal appeal to his own supporters, heedless of the rest of the country — Mr Johnson may prove able to form another government. But the Conservative party as we have known it, as a slightly right-of-centre alliance, will be gone. Absent the purged moderates, absent cosmopolitans who profess enthusiasm for our European neighbours, together with most of its more intelligent MPs, it will become a thing apart, repugnant to millions of British voters who recognise that government must be conducted on the centre ground.
Some pundits compare today’s Euro-strife to that precipitated by the 19th-century Corn Laws, tariffs protecting British agriculture against imported produce which inflated bread prices for the new urban masses. Some Conservatives, and especially the landed interest, never forgave Robert Peel, the prime minister who in 1846 decided to support repealing the Corn Laws.
Peel defended this apostasy, which brought down his government, in famous words: “I will not withhold the homage due to the progress of reason and to truth, by denying that my opinions on the subjects of protection have undergone a change.” Such a surrender to realities would be unthinkable from modern Brexiters.
Between 1912 and 1914 there was another descent into extremism when Asquith’s Liberal government proposed to grant Home Rule to Ireland. Conservatives mounted an opposition that broke all constitutional norms.
On November 28 1913, Andrew Bonar Law — leader of His Majesty’s supposed “loyal opposition” — publicly appealed to the British Army not to enforce Home Rule on Ulster. Britain’s governing class became as socially divided as it is today. Margot Asquith wrote to Lord Curzon to protest at her family’s exclusion from his May ball, attended by the King and Queen. The Conservative grandee responded icily that it would be impossible to invite “even to a social gathering, the wife and daughter of the head of a government to which the majority of my friends are inflexibly opposed”.
So violent did the Ulster debate become, so real the threat of a civil war in which the Conservative party would have backed the Protestant rebels in arms, that on August 3, 1914 when Sir Edward Grey informed the House of Commons that a European cataclysm beckoned, he asserted that the one “bright spot” was that the continental war might defuse the Irish crisis.
For half a century division over Europe has been a poison seeping into the party, which has now reached its vital organs. In December 1960 Lord Chancellor David Kilmuir, himself an enthusiast for British membership of the European Economic Community, warned prime minister Harold Macmillan: “The surrenders of sovereignty involved are serious ones and I think that as a matter of practical politics it will not be easy to persuade parliament or the public to accept them . . . Those objections ought to be brought out into the open now, because if we attempt to gloss over them . . . those who are opposed to the whole idea of our joining the community will certainly seize on them with more damaging effect later on.”
This was prescient. A minority of modernist Conservatives, in alliance with three successive generations of Whitehall mandarins, took Britain into Europe in 1973 and have kept it there ever since, amid mounting difficulties.
Few, however, deluded themselves about where the hearts of the Tory faithful remained: in a Britain standing lonely and defiant on what a 1960 sociologist called “the chipped white cliffs of Dover”; that viewed the French as “turds” — to borrow our prime minister’s elegant word — and the Germans as people who refuse to confer upon the British the respect due to the nation that defeated them in two world wars.
In 1986, I became editor of the Daily Telegraph. I spent a decade striving to convert it from the “Torygraph”, the house organ of the right, into a moderate, modern centre-right newspaper. I was successful in expelling the advocates of South African apartheid and of capital punishment.
However, our campaign to reconcile both writers and readers to Europe had only limited success. We supported Margaret Thatcher in her duels with our partners in the European Community, assisted by the fact that never did she seriously consider quitting the EC — her caution stands in striking contrast to today’s recklessness.
The contributions of our Brussels correspondent, rooted in a sharp if hyperbolic eye for the EC bureaucracy’s regulatory absurdities, undoubtedly fuelled Euroscepticism. Nonetheless, I included Mr Johnson in my roll-call of “favourite colleagues” in Editor, my 2003 memoir of the Telegraph years, because he was a peerless entertainer. Never in my wildest moment did I anticipate that this anarchic, supremely narcissistic figure might seek to enter government.
A low point in the debate — and with hindsight, an important landmark — came under Thatcher’s successor, at the time of the 1992 Maastricht treaty. I spent more than a few hours meeting Sir John and his principal adviser Sarah Hogg and many more with foreign secretary Douglas Hurd, a close friend. They were at pains to persuade me that our European partners had no intention of pursuing political integration. Far from lying, I am sure they believed this themselves.
The rest is history, a history which shows that the rightwing polemicists who insisted that the Euro-federalists were serious were far more correct than Sir John, Mr Hurd, Ms Hogg — or myself. Moderate Tories lost ground in those days which we have never since been able to recover.
The wisdom of Kilmuir’s 1960 warning was borne out. When the pro-Europeans were shown wilfully or otherwise to have deceived the British people about where Europe was headed, a public trust was forfeited that has never been restored.
“Our side” made the grave mistake of underestimating the right. Of course, we knew that they were there, the veteran Eurosceptic MPs such as Bill Cash, Iain Duncan Smith and others, together with their apologists in the media. Never, however, did we suppose that they need be regarded as other than impediments to the compromises inseparable from government.
My own friends were the sort of clever clogs who had got us into Europe, and believed — on the whole rightly, some of us will continue to argue — that the man in Whitehall knows better than Nigel Farage, the Brexit party leader, what is best for the British people. Yet such sentiments reflected an intellectual conceit that has contributed mightily to our national plight today.
Michael Howard, former regius professor of modern history at Oxford and today 96, is the wisest man I have ever known. He said to me on the morning after the 2016 referendum result: “This represents a failure of the political elite. I have been part of it: my closest friends and colleagues in Whitehall led the movement into Europe. But we have failed to keep the people with us, and now we are paying the price.”
Within the Conservative party, no prominent figure has dared since the millennium to argue with conviction the case for Europe. David Cameron sought to bury it, leaving his strident opponents an open goal. The silence of the Euro-lambs has empowered the right to make the EU scapegoat for every national difficulty. Not one front bench Tory has been brave enough to tell the British people that none of the foremost problems we face — education, infrastructure, productivity, funding the NHS and welfare system — has anything to do with Europe.
No politician can tell all the truth to any electorate. But in recent years, we have witnessed a shrinkage of our leaders’ willingness to admit any portion of reality. Raymond Seitz, a brilliant former US ambassador in London, said to me in 1992: “Remember that the United States is only interested in Britain insofar as Britain is a player in Europe.” That is as true now as it was then, but who dares say so?
Walter Bagehot wrote in 1856: “The essence of Toryism is enjoyment . . .
The way to be satisfied with the present state of things is to enjoy that state of things.” It would be hard for Bagehot to find much to enjoy in the spectacle of a middle Britain trapped between two fanatical minorities, of Right and Left.
The Labour party has often in its history suffered ideological nervous breakdowns. Now it is the turn of the Conservatives. Mr Johnson is laying waste to the Tory party as we have known it, leaving no place even for his own brother. He offers the British people a budget of falsehoods and unfulfillable promises, likely to precipitate a new surge of public rage when they are seen to be broken.
Grotesquely, the prime minister yearns to see himself in Churchillian terms. Despite the jokes, Churchill was a profoundly serious human being. As war leader, he seldom shrank from avowing unwelcome truths. Amid the wave of ill-judged euphoria after the British army was rescued from Dunkirk, he told the House of Commons sternly: “Wars are not won by evacuations.” Who can imagine Mr Johnson displaying comparable honesty?
Yet because there seems no one else remotely plausible, he may prove able to cling to the cliff face. Sir Michael, and fellow historian Sir Richard Evans, have recently suggested — independently of each other — that Britain has entered a “Weimar period”, not in being threatened with a Hitler but instead in suffering the failure not merely of a government, but of governance.
Sir Richard, the former regius professor of history at Cambridge university, highlights the menace posed by politicians and tabloid newspapers that attack the judiciary as “enemies of the people” — a charge now being made about parliament itself. We should not delude ourselves that what is taking place represents any sort of normality, or acceptable political process.
Our society has lapsed into a period of madness which we should recognise as such — as do most foreign commentators viewing our affairs — wherein dangerous forces are in play. We shall be fortunate if we prove able to escape from it with only the implosion of one traditional political party, rather than with a collapse of confidence in our entire system of democracy.
Max Hastings is a former editor of the Daily Telegraph and historian whose latest book ‘Chastise: The Dambusters’ Story 1943’ was published this week.