Thursday 20 June 2019 10:33 am

The breakup of the UK is not an acceptable price for Brexit

Whoever wins the keys to Number 10 this summer will walk in on their first day to the inbox from hell.

There’s the social care crisis that various governments have been kicking down the road for a decade.

There’s the massive housing shortage that has led to vast swathes of the population abandoning their dreams of ever owning a home.

There’s the environment, a ticking time bomb in more than one sense, now that Theresa May has committed the UK to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, with little roadmap for how this can be achieved without damaging the economy.

And of course there’s Brexit, which the new leader must confront armed with a range of options already rejected by either parliament or the EU, by the end of October. The winner of this contest is not likely to ride into Downing Street to a chorus of popular cheers.

Still, while all of the candidates served at some point in a government that caused, ignored, or exacerbated these issues, whoever wins will inevitably argue that he inherited this mess, and cast the blame back onto May as much as possible.

And that excuse might wash in terms of Brexit, climate change, housing, or social care. But it will be of little comfort if the United Kingdom breaks up on his watch.

We got a stark reminder this week that, despite being played out on primetime national TV, the leadership contest will be decided by a tiny fraction of the population – 160,000 Conservative party members – whose priorities do not match up with the rest of the country.

According to YouGov’s latest poll of Tory members, they want no-deal firmly on the table. A staggering majority want a leader willing to leave without a deal, and almost half (46 per cent) would be happy to see the hardest of hard-Brexiteers – Nigel Farage – lead their party.

We now know what the ideal version of Brexit looks like for Tory members, and achieving it is worth virtually any cost. That not only includes significant damage to the British economy (deemed acceptable by 61 per cent), but Scotland and Northern Ireland leaving the UK (63 per cent and 59 per cent).

Shockingly, only 29 per cent said that they would rather halt Brexit to prevent Scotland from leaving.

Scottish nationalists were, unsurprisingly, quick to jump on this devastating poll. First minister Nicola Sturgeon is always on the look-out for signs that Scotland is being ignored, but in this particular instance, it’s hard to argue with her. She literally has proof that the people choosing the next Prime Minister care more about Brexit than keeping the Union intact.

This has put one of the Tories’ star players in an almost impossible position, made worse by the fact that, beyond her single vote as a member, she has no say in the matter.

For it was not the candidates themselves but Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson who was put under the spotlight, urging her party to “take a long, hard look at themselves” and warning that Brexit should be delivered “but not at the expense of breaking up the UK”.

Davidson is a widely popular politician, who has led an stunning resurgence for the Conservatives north of the border from virtual annihilation to robust opposition as Scotland’s second biggest party, taking their MPs from one in 2010 to 13 now.

She has been a rare voice of common sense and civility amid years of petty infighting and personal attacks, and a stalwart opponent to separatist voices. Many have hoped for her eventual move from Holyrood to Westminster, and tipped her as a possible future leader.

But even she cannot work miracles when faced with a party that considers her cause – the integrity of the UK – a secondary priority.

Of course, the Scottish nationalists will seize on any excuse, and there is little indication that Scottish voters will follow them. While Sturgeon routinely cites the fact that Scotland voted Remain as a reason for independence, all but one of the 50-odd polls since May became Prime Minister three years ago have shown a majority for staying in the UK.

And given the unfathomable difficulties that have emerged in unpicking the UK’s 46-year relationship with the EU, disentangling the 312-year Union between England and Scotland hardly looks appealing.

Nonetheless, the callousness on the part of Tory members, who are the only voters the leadership contenders are currently concerned with, is worrying.

Remember the job that these candidates are going for: leader of the Conservative and Unionist party, and by extension, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Right now, the mechanics of how the Prime Minister is chosen are pushing the hopefuls towards the most extreme form of Brexit backed by a majority of their party members, potentially at the expense of one or even two of the UK’s four nations becoming independent.

No Tory leader wants to be accused of failing to deliver the Brexit that the people wanted. But are they comfortable with their legacy being the breakup not only of Britain and the EU, but of the UK?

An indiscreet David Cameron revealed that the Queen “purred down the phone” when he told her that Scotland had voted to remain in the UK. Imagine her reaction if another Tory leader loses them.

Conservative members might feel differently, but it’s a price that no potential Prime Minister should be willing to pay.

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