So Prime Minister Theresa May lives to fight another day. She won Wednesday’s vote of no confidence: 200 members of her party stood by her; 117 did not. Indeed, under the Conservative Party’s rules, it will be another year before her opponents in the party can try to unseat her as leader.
But does her victory really resolve anything? There’s been speculation that the deep divisions and factional fighting between the hard-line Brexiteers and the Conservatives’ less Euroskeptic wing might do more than just unseat the prime minister; it might ultimately break the party apart, with some members coalescing around a nationalist, even populist, alternative while their less strident colleagues join a putative “centrist” party committed to a more moderate, more open style of politics. Aren’t we, then, looking at a truly existential threat to the world’s oldest, and arguably most successful, party?
Probably not. Of course, past performance is no guarantee of future performance, but the Conservative Party’s “will to power” has seen it through many crises in its 200-year history. Holding office, not doctrinal purity, has always been its No. 1 goal. It often bends but it rarely breaks. Even Brexit, however bad things seem, is unlikely to change that.
No one is saying, of course, that “Europe” doesn’t matter. Britain’s relationship with the Continent has long posed a problem for the party, not least because the economic advantages it seems to offer involve a trade-off with national sovereignty, something Conservatives care about deeply. This has been the case since the 1970s, when Edward Heath, the prime minister at the time, had to rely on Labour votes in Parliament in order to bring Britain into the European Economic Community, the European Union’s predecessor.
Most of Mrs. May’s problems since she took office in the wake of the 2016 Brexit referendum stem from her dogged determination to secure an exit from the European Union that simultaneously restores Britain’s control over migration, but without tanking the economy and necessitating a hard border in Ireland. (Indeed, she’s done little else in her tenure.)
Those problems don’t look likely to go away just because she won Wednesday’s no-confidence vote. The Brexit process remains up in the air, and Mrs. May’s deal with the European Union is still unpopular with many in her party. It’s entirely possible that to break Britain out of the Brexit logjam, she may have to agree to a “softer” Brexit than she would have liked, or perhaps even to a second referendum. Neither of these would be popular among Conservatives — particularly if the latter resulted in a vote to remain. But even then, the party would almost certainly manage to pull itself together rather than fall apart, focusing on what its factions, despite everything, can still agree on.
That’s because even more than the Conservatives care about their divisions over Brexit, they care about what they share in common: a conservative agenda and a determination to keep a left-wing Labour Party from gaining a parliamentary majority.
Believe it or not, most Conservatives are in broad agreement. When it comes to the economy and the role of the state, they are all pretty much Thatcherites now. True, there are a few Conservative members of Parliament who would like to see a little more public spending and investment, a more compassionate attitude to those on welfare, and some slightly tougher regulation of business. But the differences between them and the rest of their colleagues (most of whom want to keep spending, taxes and regulation as low as possible without setting off an overwhelming electoral backlash) are largely differences of degree, not of kind.
That means that there is a post-Brexit agenda that the Conservatives can unite around: free trade with as many countries that will do deals with “global Britain,” cutting red tape that supposedly suffocates small business, overcoming the obstacles that have stymied the growth of homeownership under a party that has long lauded its commitment to a “property-owning democracy,” and health and education provisions lean enough to ensure that tax-funded spending on public services doesn’t crowd out the private sector. Time and time again, after fights that might have broken other parties — the vicious arguments over free trade in the 1920s is perhaps the most apposite example — the Tories have prevented seemingly permanent splits from becoming fatal.
Clearly, it’s proving incredibly hard right now to fulfill the decision to leave the European Union. But because there’s still more that unites the Conservative Party than divides it — particularly when it comes to keeping taxes and regulation low, keeping capital flowing, and keeping a socialist Labour Party out of power — even Brexit, in the end, is unlikely to tear it apart.
And who knows. With the clock ticking louder and louder, and with Mrs. May now apparently safe, this underlying agreement might still combine with the party’s traditional will to power to allow her, after all, to oversee a smooth departure from the European Union next March.
Tim Bale is a professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London and the author of The Conservative Party: From Thatcher to Cameron, among other books.