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Cerberus: This Tory playground punch-up was always going to turn nasty. Too much is at stake


Perhaps it is time to send in the Ofsted inspectors. Dave’s academy is starting to look a most unruly place. Playground fights between groups of boys, all wearing the same blue uniform, happen on a daily basis.

First Johnson B from the lower fifth says that headmaster Dave is lining up alongside some most unsavoury characters, including Hitler A and Napoleon B. He omits to mention Caesar J, Charlemagne and Philip II of Spain, all longstanding  enemies of the school. But they are clearly in his mind. So along comes Heseltine M, a sort of superannuated prefect, to slap down young BoJo for spouting obscenities and to accuse him of losing the plot.

Then Major J, another old boy from the Heseltine camp, says that BoJo and his Brexiteering ilk should take themselves off to North Korea if they think that the school should ruled by the head and his governors rather than an assortment of Continental trustees with exotic names like Juncker J-C and Merkel A.

Duncan Smith I, a senior master of the BoJo tendency, likens the school burser, Osborne G, to Pinocchio for his predilection for making outrageous claims, such as a collapse in the value of the school buildings of up to 18 per cent if the foreign trustees are deprived of their supervisory role.

The local girls’ academy joins in the fight with Patel P accusing Dave and his chums of hysteria and hurling personal abuse at the BoJo gang. Dave says some of the girls are behaving appallingly and face expulsion. Another top girl, Mordaunt P, weighs in on Patel’s side, saying the school is about to be over-run by Turks. Dave says she is talking rot.

Meanwhile, the bursar, who has an awful lot of friends in high places, especially the Treasury, the CBI, the IMF, the OECD, the big banks, the Americans and the big companies, including the big shops like Tesco and Marks & Spencer, warns those inclined to side with Johnson B that tuck shop prices will soar, interest rates will rocket, pocket money will be slashed and double maths will be compulsory even on Sundays if they follow their turbulent Prince.

You get the picture. Back in January, David Cameron was telling Cabinet ministers that he expected a civilised and respectful debate about Britain’s European destiny. Today, we are witnessing a playground punch-up among the boys in blue.

It was always likely to end this way. First, because where you stand on Europe is an atavistic matter. You are either appalled that a country that within living memory ruled a quarter of the planet (rather well actually) can no longer control its own borders and enforce its own laws. Or you are prepared to trade your democratic birthright for the promise – utterly worthless of course – of continuing safety and economic prosperity. There is not an awful lot of common ground between people, albeit sailing under the same political colours, who believe that Britain should again stand on its own two feet and those who think that the nation state, even a great one that has saved Europe from tyranny more than once, is a relic of the past.

The EU referendum is a very big deal because it raises an existential question. What is Britain – and by extension who are the British? Is Britain just another middle-ranking European power content to be swallowed up by some amorphous European bureaucracy (the EU will never amount to a superstate despite its ludicrous pretensions) – or is Britain different? It certainly was different since it gave the world parliamentary democracy, the rule of law, the English language, countless technological inventions, the Industrial Revolution, many of the greatest writers and scientists the world has ever seen, and just about every sporting pastime known to man – and woman. It has also been the most stable and civilised society in the world for 1,000 years and just about invented good manners and Christian concern for the least fortunate. But may be, harking back to the likes of Cameron, Osborne and Heseltine, it is not different any more.

That is one reason for the savagery of the playground fight in the Blue academy. But there is another, more visceral reason. This is not just a scrap over lofty notions of who we are. It is also a fight over who will inherit the crown. Cameron knows that if he tumbles on June 23, he and his chums are toast. The keys to No 10 will pass to the advocates of Brexit, most likely Boris Johnson, the man vilified by the Remain gang because they thought they could buy him off with the promise of some shiny new baubles. Even if Cameron and Osborne pull through, their party will probably turn to an opponent of European integration within a couple of years.

Twenty years ago, amid the last outbreak of Tory infighting over Europe, the idea of pulling out of Europe was not even on the cards. Then the argument was about “being in the heart of Europe”, as Mr Major put it so many times, reforming Europe via “subsidiarity”, and whether or not we should join the benighted single currency. Now the European old guard, represented by the likes of Major, Heseltine and Kenneth Clarke, look desperately out of date. Along with their current counterparts such as Cameron and Osborne, only by predicting such fantasies as World War III, economic Armageddon and a property crash can they hope to terrify the public into sticking with Brussels. But the very fact that they have to resort to such patent nonsense is proof that the European dream has died and that a few years from now the Tory party will be in Brexit hands.

Judging from the polls and the betting markets, Fear (ie Remain) looks set to triumph over Hope (ie Leave) on June 23. If it does, it will prove a fleeting victory.

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Cerberus writes a blog every Monday on the state of modern Britain.

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