In his first party conference speech as leader of the Tories in 2006, David Cameron told his party to “stop banging on about Europe”. It didn’t.
Years later, at party conferences, it was abundantly clear that Europe was still being talked about, albeit in hushed tones. The only thing the Conservative Party had learned was a bit of message discipline — it was now better able to hide the fact that it was banging on about Europe behind closed doors.
Fringe events at conferences do not usually have security officers stood outside the doors to check passes. In 2008 and 2009, sessions on Europe did, and the press was barred from entering the packed rooms — ostensibly because there was space only for members, but even as delegates filtered out early no journalists were admitted.
“Europe,” as Conservative activist, blogger and LBC talk show host Iain Dale says, “has always been a much more divisive issue in the Conservative Party than the rest of the country.”
Cameron has been dragged into a referendum he is unlikely to have ever thought was necessary and probably never wanted to have
Sometimes that rift has come to the surface. In 2012, 100 Tory MPs, led by the serial backbench rebel John Baron, the Conservative MP for Billericay and a staunch Eurosceptic, delivered a letter to the Prime Minister calling on him to bring forward a referendum on the subject of Britain’s membership of the European Union. When they were largely ignored they tabled an amendment to the Queen’s Speech in 2013 expressing their regret that the government had not included a European referendum bill among those to be added to the statute book.
The UK will vote on June 23 on its continued membership of the EU. Having held off his rebels for a decade, Cameron has been dragged into a referendum he is unlikely to have ever thought was necessary and probably never wanted to have. Certainly that is how Baron sees it.
“There is no doubt in my mind that we forced the government to move on this issue,” he says. “Look back to the speeches David Cameron gave on Europe in 2010, 2011, 2012. The word referendum does not even cross the Prime Minister’s lips. Certainly in the early years he didn’t want to address it. He didn’t come into power thinking he would hold a referendum on Europe. So no, there is no doubt in my mind that we forced the Prime Minister’s hand on this issue.”
No Conservative leader since John Major — or even Margaret Thatcher — has succeeded in stopping the party from arguing about Britain’s membership of the European club. Rodney Barker, emeritus professor of government at the London School of Economics, thinks that the Prime Minister should not shoulder all of the blame.
“Conservatives who are against Europe see it as something that embodies sharp judgements by the courts against the individual, unfettered immigration and the imposition of limits over working practices and hours and on a liberalised economy,” he says. “It’s not about sovereignty at all. Some Conservatives simply don’t like some of the things the European Court has done… For Conservatives there’s always a little bit of the little Englander about their dislike of Europe. They don’t like foreigners telling them what to do.”
It is a view echoed by Dale. “I think most Conservative party members have always been Eurosceptic but I think the parliamentary party has become more Eurosceptic since Maastricht,” he says. “Every election the number of Eurosceptic MPs increases, although not all of them will be campaigning to leave Europe. Even some of those who are arguing to stay in Europe I would define as Eurosceptic, [Business Secretary] Sajid Javid, for example.”Eurosceptics within the party certainly believe they have the momentum and the backing, perhaps more so than ever before. Veteran Tory MP John Redwood says the party has “definitely become more Eurosceptic since the 1990s”.
“Overwhelmingly, the membership [of the Conservative Party] wants a referendum and by a very large majority the membership wants to leave [Europe] because despite the Prime Minister’s own best efforts, the deal he returned with does not address the issue of whether we can make our own laws, raise our own taxes and spend our own money,” he says.
The truth may be more complex; there are clearly many in the parliamentary party who back Cameron’s desire to stay in the EU. Last month, Redwood emailed his colleagues appealing to them to vote to leave the EU telling them “be true to your electors! If you told them you were Eurosceptic, then vote to leave the EU in the referendum.” His email was met with anger and derision by fellow Tory MP Sir Nicholas Soames, who told him in no uncertain terms to “bugger off”.
These splits between the leave and remain camps are becoming more high-profile and more vitriolic since Mayor of London Boris Johnson pinned his bid for the future leadership of the party on his support for “Brexit”, drawing up the battle lines in the race to succeed Cameron. Whatever the result of the referendum, some insiders worry that the debate could do long-term damage — or even split — the party.
Downing Street’s “Project Fear”, a policy of highlighting the risks to the country of an exit, has led to a rush of negative campaigning, which may be putting voters off.
Two recent polls from ICM and YouGov show that the Conservatives’ hold on the electorate is slipping. One shows Labour drawing level, the other pulling ahead for the first time since Jeremy Corbyn took over as leader of the opposition. As YouGov research director Anthony Wells says, the Conservatives’ “Euro squabbles” are “hurting the party’s image”.
Voters are simply not as incensed by Europe as the Tories are. As Dale says, “Europe doesn’t even make it into the top 10 concerns among voters… If I do a phone-in on Europe I don’t get anywhere near as many calls as I do on a range of other issues.”
Meanwhile, membership of the Conservative Party has halved in the past 11 years since David Cameron became leader. According to Paul Goodman, editor of Tory grassroots website conservativehome.com, “not all of the losses are deaths and defections”.
He attributes that fall to a perceived lack of seriousness within the “Cameron project” as it is still known — a phrase that may reveal a lot about what many grassroots Tories think of their leader and his politics.
The LSE’s Barker points out that “the Conservatives have always been very good at not splitting as a party”, although “they have also been very good at getting rid of their leaders quickly and brutally… The one thing the Conservatives do instinctively know about is power and staying in charge,” he says. But he adds that while the Tories might not split, “quite a lot of blood will be spilt”.
There are already indications that the debate could roll on well past June 23.“There will obviously be a second referendum if the country votes to remain in the EU,” Redwood says. He believes that the deal that the Prime Minister agreed in Brussels in February will require treaty change, which would trigger another vote.
Cameron has explicitly ruled out a second referendum if the UK votes to stay in, but as Barker points out: “All politicians and all politically motivated people have a very high capacity to believe that if the people disagree with them they don’t understand what is really going on or have been misled.”
“If you believe something strongly enough you can’t accept the majority may not agree with you, just look at the [Scottish National Party] at the moment,” he adds. Barker believes regardless of the outcome of the EU referendum “the Tory party will be a mess” — at the very least “there will be scores to settle”, he says.
Baron insists that the party will have to accept the result and move on. “If we give people a choice and we have had a constructive debate and we lose we have to accept it,” he says. “If we can, in any way, put it to bed once and for all and make Europe work for us I think that has to be a good thing.” Even so, he says, the toxicity of the current debate means that it could still do real damage to the party.
“If the government continues with Project Fear it will be very difficult to have a reasonable debate. That is my concern… that [it] will leave a bitter aftertaste in the mouth,” he says. Even so, he insists he is optimistic that the party will be able to overcome its differences. “[But] come back to me in a month’s time and if the debate has started to resemble cats fighting in a bag, I may have a different answer for you.”
Unite or die
Iain Duncan Smith was one of the Tory rebels who opposed the Maastricht Treaty in 1992 and 1993, voting against his party to try to keep the UK out of the integrated European Union. It was a revolt that led to the then Prime Minister, John Major, famously calling out the “bastards” in his party.
David Cameron could well be thinking less charitable thoughts, after the Work and Pensions Secretary quit suddenly following the budget, in a move widely interpreted as being more about tripping up the europhile chancellor George Osborne than it was about protesting welfare cuts.
Duncan Smith has so far used the platform of his resignation to talk up his vision of “compassionate conservatism”, taking aim at the austerity measures that have been the hallmark of first the Tory-led coalition and latterly the Conservative government, while the press held its breath waiting for an outburst on Europe.
The fallout from Duncan Smith’s resignation further shows the divisions within the Tories on key policy issues — not just on the UK’s future in the EU — and on the party’s leadership. David Cameron’s announcement that he would stand down before the next election kicked off a contest for his successor. The Prime Minister’s apparent favourite is Osborne; the party may have other ideas.
High-profile figures have made no secret of their desire to succeed Cameron. Boris Johnson’s tent has been pitched for years, and his very public will-he-won’t-he decision to back the Brexit camp and defy the government was interpreted by many analysts as an attempt to position himself to rush Cameron’s seat, should the referendum deliver a vote to leave.
“IDS” has been leader of the party before, between 2001 and 2003, ultimately unseated in a no-confidence vote as polls showed the Tories’ popularity dwindling fast. At the time, he made a strident call for the party to overcome its differences and not be “sabotaged by self-indulgence or indiscipline”, and made clear, “My message is simple and stark: unite or die.”