Tory former leadership contender Rory Stewart said he has not ruled out any future bid to head the party, but his intention to vote against a no-deal Brexit will mark him as a “traitor” in the eyes of some members.
The MP for Penrith and the Border said his opposition to leaving the EU with no agreement “will probably damage me for five to 10 years”.
In his first major public appearance since resigning from the Cabinet on Boris Johnson’s appointment as Prime Minister, Mr Stewart told the Edinburgh International Book Festival he still believes a “soft, pragmatic, moderate” Brexit is necessary to avoid splitting the country.
He said: “I’m very very worried about polarisation, I’m worried that if we either go for a no-deal Brexit or we reverse the referendum and go for remain, we’re going to end up with 40 years of a country split right the way down the middle.
“My instinct is to go back to Parliament next week and say we must find a compromise, we must go for a soft Brexit, we must re-energise the Withdrawal Agreement, but I’m now speaking to who – 10 people, 15 people – because Parliament is now divided between a Conservative Party which is lining up behind Boris for a no-deal Brexit, and Labour and the Lib Dems who are increasingly pushing for a second referendum and remain.
“For somebody like me who’s in the centre, it’s a pretty lonely place to be, because most of the views are now the two extremes.”
Asked if he would consider running in any future Tory leadership race, he said: “I’m definitely thinking about it. It’s a very, very difficult question.”
Mr Stewart, 46, later added: “As a working politician I know how difficult that would be to do, because in a way what I’m about to do, which is to go back and vote against a no-deal Brexit, will mark me in the eyes of many of my colleagues and many party members as a traitor who has been trying to undermine the whole project. That will probably damage me for five or 10 years.
“So the question is one I have to think about very seriously. I’m 46 now and I have to think about the next 25 years of my life – how can I be most useful, what can I actually do for this country – and it may be that certainly the next 15, 20 years of my life trying to be prime minister may not be the most useful contribution I can make.”
The MP said the idea of leadership had become about “fairy tales” and the leader “the person that can produce the most absurd and extravagant fairy tale”.
He said: “I think in a way they are playing into a nostalgia and desire for heroism and grandeur.
“Nobody really wants to have a conversation with me about how the fourth time round at an addiction treatment programme for heroin in Glasgow works, what we want to hear is, ‘Britain is great, it’s all going to be different, we’re going to rip it up, we’re going to have a no-deal Brexit and launch into the new world’, because there’s still this sort of craving for heroic vision, which has so little to do with the business of government.”