It’s not always easy to spot the moment when firm belief turns into zealotry. The Eurosceptic minority in the Conservative Party, like death and taxes, has always been with us. They received their first significant boost when the One Nation Tories overthrew the increasingly deranged Margaret Thatcher in 1990 over her growing objections to Britain in Europe. Under John Major’s premierships the Eurosceptics were active and a thorn in his flesh. Thatcher gave them tacit, and sometimes explicit support and they grew in numbers. Only support from other Parties allowed Major to successfully negotiate Maastricht. The men in white coats didn’t quite come to lock the madder Eurosceptics away but they had certainly crossed the line into zealotry.

After Major’s defeat the Conservatives elected variously Eurosceptic men as Leader – Hague, Duncan Smith and Howard, but these leaders never crossed into zealotry when in office (though they did later). The election of David Cameron briefly stemmed the Eurosceptic tide though he had no discernible ideology of his own and defeated David Davis not because of what he believed but because of what he was (younger, more persuasive, not Gordon Brown). Well the rest is history. Cameron did a deal with the most pro Europe Party in Parliament. The pro Europe bias of the Establishment seemed secure but this was an illusion. UKIP exploited initially objections to the Euro to gain a foothold then when Brown opted Britain out of the single currency switched their emphasis to the issues of sovereignty and immigration.

This was zealotry on steroids but many of those who stayed loyal to the Tories aligned themselves with Nigel Farage – sometimes openly, more often behind the scenes. UKIP’s win in the European election of 2014 was the watershed moment. Cameron promised a referendum on E.U. membership in the Conservative Manifesto for the 2015 General Election and the LibDems collapsed. The Referendum was the Triumph of the Zealots. A weak, unpopular and unpersuasive Cameron lost as did the overwhelmingly strong case for Britain to remain a member of the European Union.

If the Eurosceptics could have won by persuasion no doubt they would have. There are many rational Conservstives who, reluctantly, felt the 2016 Referendum result had to be honoured. It was always going to be a rough ride and zealotry in the Tories ERG stood in the way of rational Deal. Theresa May’s Agreement with the E.U. was that “rational Deal” but the Eurosceptics opposed it, as did the small but intellectually powerful pro Remain group of Tory MPs. The deal is dead.

The struggle in the days ahead will be between the zealots who actually (and insanely) promote the idea of “No Deal” and rational man who know that “No Deal” would be truly mad. History teaches us that when zealotry triumphs it’s not just reason that loses out. It’s peace, security, human rights and decency as well. But what is the way out? Can’t help you there 😱

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