It has often been believed that the Duke of Wellington, who defeated Napoleon’s army in the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, supposedly remarked: “The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton." There is no known record of that statement, except an attributed one in 1856, when the Duke, visiting Eton, said, “It is here that the Battle of Waterloo was won." More accurate is what George Orwell wrote in The Lion And The Unicorn (1941): “Probably the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing-fields of Eton, but the opening battles of all subsequent wars have been lost there." One way to read Orwell’s lines is to accept that certain statements get elevated to the status of aphorisms, with symbolic meanings acquiring mythic connotations, but once shorn of their pithiness, they reveal a different reality—where battles are lost more often than won, and rhetoric alone does not win real battles.

Britain’s Conservative Party is witnessing this live, as two Oxford Union debaters—Boris Johnson, the runaway favourite, and Jeremy Hunt, the milder challenger—slug it out to win the support of about 160,000 party members to lead the parliamentary party and become prime minister. These are challenging times. The next leader will have a mandate less legitimate than that of any of his predecessors in more than a generation. Britain is not only at political crossroads, but at an existential turning point.

The Conservative Party is in office, but has little power, relying on a reactionary party from Northern Ireland, which has offered support in return for governmental largesse. True, about 52% of voters chose to leave the European Union and 48% voted against it, but in the three years since that referendum, voters have learned more: how that vote was won using possibly unfair means; how the promises made by the “leave" camp were false; and how polls suggest that if the current terms of leaving the EU were known in 2016, many voters would vote differently.

The caretaker Prime Minister Theresa May’s agreement to leave the EU has been defeated in parliament several times; she has lost many cabinet ministers; and no logical outcome has majority support in the present House. Two realistic options are to hold another referendum or go for a general election, both of which most parliamentarians oppose. Maybe politicians want the EU to take the decision off their hands, a joy the EU has sensibly denied the British.

This is an Oxford Union debate gone bad. Johnson, Hunt, Michael Gove (who narrowly missed the final run-off), the sensible contender Rory Stewart (who was eliminated), pro-Brexit member of the European parliament Daniel Hannan, and the man who set the Brexit saga in motion, former prime minister David Cameron, are all Oxonians.

A cherished feature of student life at Oxford (which tends to produce prime ministers) and Cambridge (which opts for producing Nobel laureates) is the debating union, where students participate in spirited debates on matters of great importance. They dress up in well-cut suits, argue their positions with great aplomb, sway the house with their rhetoric and oratory, and at the end of the 90 minutes allotted, retire to a fine dining hall with their rivals, exchanging pleasantries and jokes, and enjoy a three-course meal with fine wine.

They debate important matters; in 1933, Oxford famously voted, “This house will in no circumstances fight for the king and the country". It was here that Indian parliamentarian Shashi Tharoor made his case against British imperialism, which later developed into a fine book that ought to be required reading in Britain. Other topics include: Is immigration good for Britain? Does humanitarian aid work? All worth arguing over with greater decorum and with posher accents than at an adda in Kolkata or at an Irani restaurant in Mumbai (where the owners thankfully tell their patrons not to discuss religion or politics); but it is a sport, with no real world consequences. (I took part in one such debate last year at Cambridge: “This house believes Churchill was no hero" . I spoke for the motion; Bim Afolami, a Conservative MP spoke against it; our side won—surely you didn’t expect another outcome?)

Now imagine if such a debate were to have real consequences—and that’s exactly the drama being played out in Britain at the moment, as Simon Kuper has pointed out in a brilliant essay in Financial Times. Conservative Eurosceptics have hobbled their prime ministers—Margaret Thatcher, John Major, Cameron, and May. No sceptic has ever taken responsibility for his stubbornness. (If Johnson wins, he may have to actually do what he has been claiming is easy, a task which the EU won’t make simpler). It is worth recalling that he decided to support the “leave" side at the last moment, calculating and concluding that would make it easier for him to become prime minister.

Ultimately, that’s where Britain has landed—squarely in a spot it had never really known if it wanted; with at least half the nation firmly against it; with the very real risk of Scotland seeking independence and Northern Ireland insisting on keeping its border with Ireland open; and with a college debate played out in public, with disastrous real-world consequences.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Read Salil’s previous Mint columns at www.livemint.com/saliltripathi

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