Conservative Split on Europe: How Bad Will It Be?

Some think power will discipline Britain’s Euroskeptics. Others worry about a Tory revolt.

German chancellor Angela Merkel and British prime minister David Cameron speak ahead of a European Council meeting in Brussels, December 20, 2013
German chancellor Angela Merkel and British prime minister David Cameron speak ahead of a European Council meeting in Brussels, December 20, 2013 (European Council)

While David Cameron travels around Europe this week to seek support for EU reforms, his Conservative Party back home is gearing up for a fight.

The British leader has promised to call a referendum on the island nation’s European Union membership by 2017. He wants to secure several changes, including an opt-out from “ever-closer” union and restrictions on the welfare benefits that labor migrants from other EU nations can claim, before the vote.

Euroskeptics — who are a minority in the party, but a loud minority — will campaign for an exit whether he succeeds or not, thus splitting Conservatives at a time when their hold on politics is stronger than it has been in decades.

Discipline

Janan Ganesh argues in the Financial Times that the Europe debate will definitely rattle the party but not shatter it.

A third or more of Conservative lawmakers may campaign for exit no matter the outcome of Cameron’s negotiations. But the rancor, Ganesh predicts, “will be contained and the aftermath managed.”

“It takes a special kind of MP to imperil nine years of professional opportunity for a single cause,” he argues.

The prospect of staying in power should more than discipline Euroskeptic members if — as seems likely — they lose the referendum vote.

Unless the result is exceptionally close and the campaign plainly unfair, any attempt by the outers to raise hell after a referendum that goes against them would be jeered out of the room — by fellow outers, no less.

Tribal divides

The Telegraph‘s Fraser Nelson is less sanguine, writing that old tribal divides — “between pragmatists and idealists, wets and dries” — are becoming visible again.

Like Ganesh, Cameron expects that the promise of power will contain the split, according to Nelson.

With Labour in a crisis so deep that it could last a decade, the Tories could govern for the next fifteen years if they manage to pull themselves together. And even now, the leaders of the “leave” campaign (which has a 35 percent chance of success, according to bookmakers) are discussing reconciliation. They would make a quick and visible peace with the other side and talk about the urgent need to unite to prevent the calamity of a Jeremy Corbyn government.

But that all depends on the outers being as pragmatic as those Conservatives who favor staying in the EU.

Succession battle

The risk of a split is exacerbated by the struggle to succeed David Cameron, who has said he will not run for a third term in 2020.

Cameron deputy, George Osborne, is the favorite to replace him. A proponent of the centrist conservatism the prime minister has pursued — including the legalization of gay marriage, raising of the minimum wage and introduction of competition and more freedom in schools — Osborne has many supporters among the party’s younger, liberal ranks. They after all owe their positions to the success of the Cameron-Osborne “modernization” project.

Osborne wants to keep his country in the EU and his party in the center of British politics.

Reactionaries and Euroskeptics, by contrast, argue that now Labour has effectively taken itself out of the game by electing the far-left Jeremy Corbyn as its leader, the Conservatives can afford to move to the right.

The former may be in the majority in Parliament, but the latter view could win out in an internal party vote, according to Nelson.

He points out that Tory membership has halved since Cameron became leader. “The remaining members tend to have long memories.”