We are witnessing nothing less than a Tory reformation

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‘It doesn’t matter that Theresa May backed the losing side in the referendum. It might even have helped, because she now compensates with born-again zeal.’ Photograph: Toby Melville/Reuters

Once you have seen Theresa May tell a hall full of Conservative conference delegates that she will lead them out of the European Union, it is very hard to imagine how David Cameron could ever have stood before the same people to say the opposite.

Ripples of ecstasy washed across the Birmingham Symphony Hall as the prime minister affirmed her commitment to Brexit. It doesn’t matter that May backed the losing side in the referendum. It might even have helped, because she now compensates with born-again zeal. There is more rejoicing in the kingdom of Euroscepticism at one remainer who repenteth than over 99 righteous leavers who have no need of repentance.

Nor does it matter that the measures announced by May as proof of intent – activation of article 50 of the Lisbon treaty by March 2017; a “great repeal bill” to disentangle European and UK laws – are less exciting than she made them sound. Both are practical requirements of the process; neither tells us anything about the outcome. The prime minister lit them up as beacons, rallying the troops for a liberation crusade.

All that May has to offer is symbols, but symbols are a more powerful currency with true believers than is ever understood by agnostics. Likewise, the prime minister’s repeated assertion that “Brexit means Brexit” has attracted more ridicule than it deserves. (May has now added a second line to the mantra: “It means we are going to leave the European Union.”) To the cynical ear this is vacuity dressed in tautology. But that objection presumes that slogans are meant to transmit information. Often their function is performative – a signal of belonging to the tribe. There is a liturgical quality to May’s Brexit creed. You can imagine it as a call-and-response prayer, with the congregation supplying the new follow-up verse.

It is the quasi-religious mood in Birmingham that makes Cameron’s reign feel so remote. For years, the balance of Tory grassroots opinion was hostile to the power they called Europe. The demand for rupture was voiced by a small minority, but more would have joined in had they believed it was possible and available. Now they are told it is both, by a leader who – crucially – has far better credentials as an orthodox Tory than her predecessor. May, the provincial vicar’s daughter, has done her time tramping the streets, stuffing envelopes, working the local Conservative association circuit. Her conversion is not mistrusted as some tactical ruse but celebrated as the completion of a journey on behalf of the whole party.

This is nothing less than a reformation in the Church of Conservatism, with the authority of Brussels cast as a modern-day Rome. Cameron tried to manage the old schism but the suspicion lingered that his loyalties were divided; that he read from a vernacular Tory bible at home and then jumped on the Eurostar to kiss the papal commission’s ring. Now Theresa May stands before her party like Elizabeth I: a true, Protestant queen, their own Gloriana.

By temperament, the new prime minister is not a fanatic, and the obligation to staff a government with recruits from across the Tory spectrum precludes a purge of heretics. Like Elizabeth, May comes to power with no desire to make “windows into men’s souls”. If ministers want to practise a bit of Europhilia at home, that is their business, but they should not go confessing it in public.

It is striking how quickly this new regime has taken hold. Even quite ardent Tory pro-Europeans are suppressing private fears of an imminent economic blunder for the sake of party loyalty and ambition. Only a handful of backbenchers publicly sound the alarm about Downing Street’s apparent willingness to abandon membership of the European single market. They are dismissed by colleagues – including former remainers – as rogue elements weirdly bent on career suicide.

Misgivings about May’s European position are transmitted mostly in code. Some moderates look to the Treasury for hope, seeing in Philip Hammond’s warnings about Brexit-related “turbulence” a discreet genuflexion to the old religion. Downing Street, meanwhile, eyes George Osborne warily as a dangerous grey cardinal, banished from court but maintaining his old network of allies and spies.

Then there are the Brexit ultras to May’s right, the caucus of hardliners who keep pulling their party towards the most austere professions of anti-Europeanism. They play the role of what the historian J E Neale dubbed “the puritan choir” in Elizabeth’s parliament, urging an extirpation of every last residue of papish corruption from the body politic.

Finally there are the self-styled buccaneers of the free-trade seas. Boris Johnson would probably cast himself as Sir Walter Raleigh – polymath, wordsmith, adventurer. That leaves Liam Fox to play Sir Francis Drake, looking for domestic glory in global circumnavigation but seen from abroad as a pirate.

This is all myth and fantasy, of course. But parties have always been sustained by internal mythologies, and the task of exiting the EU is so complicated and fraught with danger that fantasy becomes a necessary comfort. As one former minister says of the puritan choristers: “They have spent their lives working towards this dream. Of course they don’t want to accept that it’s a nightmare.”

Tory pro-Europeans are in the impossible position of using rational argument against faith. If they counsel compromise on migration or the single market, they are accused of talking Britain down or trying to refight the referendum. They have few reinforcements across the political water. Labour is a shambles. The Lib Dems are puny in parliament. Scotland has its own distinct politics, and in Nicola Sturgeon its own remainian queen with her own independence agenda.

The Tories do not speak for all of England, but in the absence of credible opposition they feel as if they do, and will act accordingly. To those millions who did not vote to leave the EU, the message is clear: you are free to pray for whatever you like. Your antique rites will be tolerated. But do not expect your concerns to be represented in the court of Queen Theresa. Be humble instead. Swallow your doubts and take a pew in the reformed national church of Brexit.