The Conservative Party has long been divided over Europe. Indeed, the Tories were split over Britain’s membership in the European Economic Area (the precursor to the European Union) in 1973. Europe dominated the 2001 leadership contest between Ken Clarke, who at the time openly supported Britain joining the EU’s single currency, and Iain Duncan Smith, a committed euroskeptic. (Duncan Smith triumphed.)
This division, however, is mostly limited to Europe. In fact, today’s Tory leadership contenders don’t really disagree on much else at all.
“There is actually very little that separates [the leadership contenders] on the more traditional lines of political conflict,” Tim Bale, a politics professor at Queen Mary University of London, told me.
The positions of the candidates, narrowed down Tuesday to five men—Johnson, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, Environmental Secretary Michael Gove, International Development Secretary Rory Stewart, and Home Secretary Sajid Javid—are largely the same on economic and social issues. All of them, for example, advocate for lower taxes. They all support more investment in education and social care. Where they fundamentally disagree, however, is on the issue that everyone seems to care most about: Britain’s impending departure from the European Union.
Virtually every candidate claims to have a solution to the Brexit impasse that has vexed the country for nearly three years. Whereas some, such as Gove, argue that the best way to salvage May’s negotiated Brexit deal with the EU is to simply remove the unpopular Irish backstop that some Brexiteers fear could tether the country to EU rules indefinitely (though May tried and failed to do just this), others, such as Johnson, have pledged to take the U.K. out of the EU by the end of October, with or without a deal.
The party’s members, who will select the next Tory leader when the final two candidates face each other in a runoff postal ballot next month, broadly support those hard-line positions. A Tuesday poll by the British polling firm YouGov found that more than half of Conservative Party members, who include not just lawmakers but also the party’s supporters, are willing to countenance almost anything—including significant damage to the country’s economy, the unraveling of the United Kingdom (in which Scotland and Northern Ireland would leave the union), and even the end of the Conservative Party—to see Brexit delivered. (The broader British population thinks leaving the EU without a deal would be a bad outcome for the country.)
“Being close to government and in some cases being in government means that some MPs are rather more realistic, perhaps, than some at the grass roots about the consequences of what some people see as crashing out of the EU,” Bale said, adding that the broader Tory membership “has become completely and utterly obsessed with Brexit to the point that it doesn’t really seem to care about anything else,” transforming what has otherwise been a relatively unideological party from “a church, and a broad church at that, into a cult.”