Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron speaks at the Scottish Conservatives Conference at Murrayfield Stadium in Edinburgh, Scotland, Britain March 4, 2016. REUTERS/Russell Cheyne Image Credit: REUTERS

Not long ago, Conservative MPs in Britain were congratulating themselves over the dignified conduct of their European schism. The issue did not combust at the party’s annual conference in Manchester last autumn, where supporters and opponents of European Union (EU) membership engaged in debate that was barbed at times but rarely venomous. “I’m starting to think we might get through this,” a government whip told me at the time. “We might find a way to agree to disagree, then kiss and make up afterwards.” Optimism about the party’s cohesion continued into the new year, alongside what we now know to be gross underestimates of the number of MPs likely to back ‘Brexit’. Downing Street had expected perhaps 60-80 hardcore Europhobes to reject his renegotiation deal.

It turns out closer to half of the party’s MPs will vote Leave in June. The rhetoric has turned nasty, the mood souring faster than Downing Street expected. Pro-‘Remain’ Tories are readjusting expectations of the reconciliation time. “There will be bruising,” one ally of the chancellor tells me, “but it will be healed by the end of the year.” All over by Christmas: History’s least auspicious projection for conflict resolution.

This is hardly the first time No 10 Downing Street has misread the temperature on the Tory benches. The source of the error is always the same: The complacent assumption that the route Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne have chosen is self-evidently one of modernity and strategic wisdom. Dissenters must therefore be a mix of ideological dinosaurs, hard-right thickos and embittered also-rans parading their mutilated careers like war injuries.

The Conservative top brass knew that some younger Tories, members of the 2010 and 2015 parliamentary intakes, would end up on the anti-EU side. But the hope has always been that the issue might be cordoned off, subject to controlled explosion so as not to trigger a wider culture war on the right. That battle was supposed to have been won last May. In terms of Cameron’s standing in his party, the election was as much a victory over Faragist insurgency on the hard Right as it was over Ed Miliband’s challenge from the soggy Left. United Kingdom Independence Party (Ukip) has yet to regain momentum. Nigel Farage has now serially failed to enter parliament, chickened out of a few byelections along the way, resigned and reappointed himself .

There are only so many times a politician can miss his mark before he forfeits the role of maverick challenger and looks instead like a sore loser. Ukip has also lost funding as anti-EU donors, many of them former Tory financiers, divert cash directly to the referendum effort.

And many Brexit campaigners, including Ukip figures, are eager to keep the party’s branding and its leader away from the spotlight for fear of alienating moderate opinion. None of that resolves the underlying grievances — some economic, some cultural, most connected to immigration — that drove 3.8 million people to support Ukip last May. Under less rebarbative leadership the party could make inroads into Labour’s vote in northern England and Wales.

That would conform to a pattern seen in many European countries. Xenophobes and populists, who prey on voters’ feelings of betrayal at the hands of a sneering liberal elite, pick off first an older generation of reactionary conservatives before advancing into communities that once found security in the hierarchies of organised labour — social democratic parties and trade unions — and feel abandoned in the age of globalisation.

Tory strategists feel they have already taken their hit on that front. They believe Ukip did them a favour in the last parliament, siphoning off some of their least appealing backers, including unapologetic racists, thereby helping decontaminate Conservative associations without any cost in seats. In public, senior Tories could never admit they were glad to see the back of undesirable members: The official plan is to get the numbers up and fertilise the grass roots. When Lord Feldman, the party chairman, spoke to the backbench 1922 committee recently, he admitted only reluctantly that policy positions accounted for declining membership in the Cameron era. (Elderly members dying is the other big factor.) Feldman is conducting a review of party structures that supporters say is an overdue process of streamlining and professionalisation; critics suspect a power grab by headquarters.

Inevitably, there is suspicion that Osborne wants to limit the influence of local associations and maximise central control ahead of a leadership contest due before 2020, in which the chancellor is expected to be a competitor.

Casting an oblique shadow over the whole reform process is Labour’s experience of mass party democracy last summer. Viewed from Downing Street, the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader is an exemplary lesson in the hazard of giving activists the keys to the leader’s office. The Conservative strategy is more focused on finding the right kind of member to broaden the party’s national profile — reaching out to minorities, subsidising MP candidates from working-class backgrounds — than it is on satisfying the policy appetites of the pavement-pounding, leafletting infantry.

The risk is that, before any reforms bear fruit, the Cameron-Osborne project becomes completely deracinated. There is perhaps a little too much emulation of New Labour statecraft in their style. As with Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, Cameron and Osborne have succeeded with a modernisation drive that feels to its authors like a brilliant reinvention of the party’s values for changing times, yet looks, from below, like a cynical cruise in power without principle.

Many ordinary Tory members may start to crave regime change in their own party with something like the hunger that was aroused in the Labour ranks by Corbyn’s offer of sugary political comfort food. The difference, of course, is that Labour was reeling from defeat in 2015, while the Tories are still basking in last May’s victory. That glow will not outlast a referendum campaign that puts the prime minister in opposition to half of his party, even if his view prevails. The problem for Cameron will not be liking Europe too much. It will be looking as if he doesn’t like Conservatives enough.

— Guardian News & Media Ltd

Rafael Behr is a political columnist for the Guardian. He has been political editor of the New Statesman, chief leader writer on the Observer and a foreign correspondent for the Financial Times in Russia and eastern Europe. He was named Political Commentator of the Year in the 2014 Editorial Intelligence comment awards.