The Blue and the Purple – the threat of a Tory civil war over the EU

The Blue and the Purple – the threat of a Tory civil war over the EU

Cameron European

Antifrank on the potential for a big divide

David Cameron is a popular leader of the Conservative party.  He has consistently outpolled it, tugging it along in his wake.  His brisk, warm, unideological Conservativism (which is closer to the Christian Democracy found on the continent than to the Thatcherism that has prevailed in the Conservative party for the last 30 years in Britain) appeals to many.

Many, but not all.  His leftwing opponents outside his party are predictable.  Less predictably, he has drawn out an unremitting hostility on the traditionalist right, particularly in his own Parliamentary party among older MPs.  Prime Ministers always accumulate enemies among MPs whose careers never took off or were abruptly curtailed.

    This Prime Minister has accumulated them almost exclusively on one wing of his party.  He has found that he can make do without the services of David Davis, Liam Fox and Owen Paterson. Only Iain Duncan Smith from the traditionalist right has so far lasted the course in Cabinet.

    Following the establishment of the coalition in 2010, he established a Cabinet in the image of Nick Clegg and himself.  When the Conservatives gained their overall majority in May 2015, rather than taking the opportunity to accommodate the traditionalist right of his party, he chose to stick with the same balance.

In the euphoria of the election victory, most Conservatives did not notice this.  But the traditionalist right remains firmly out in the cold.  David Cameron keeps his friends close, as has been widely remarked upon.  He clearly does not believe in keeping his enemies closer.

This would not matter much ordinarily.  They can conspire against David Cameron as much as they like but while he remains popular in the wider party with a secure support base on the left and centre of the Parliamentary party and the enthusiastic gratitude of the 2015 MPs, the traditionalist right would be reduced to guerrilla attacks on very specific subjects in tacit co-operation with the real opposition parties.  I expect that David Cameron could live with that quite happily.

These are not ordinary times.  The landmark event of this Parliament is likely to be the EU referendum.  On this, the traditionalist right of the Conservative party will fancy themselves to be the intellectual leaders of the Leave campaign.  They will also expect to exert a lot of influence on many of their Parliamentary colleagues.

For many years the Conservative party was split into three camps: Europhiles; Eurosceptics and the undecided.  The Conservatives are now split into two camps: on the one hand those for whom the EU referendum is the biggest political decision since the Reformation – as, unbelievably, Owen Paterson has described it – and who can talk and think of nothing else (“the live-and-breathers”); and, on the other hand those who heartily wish that the whole subject would just go away (“the pillow buriers”).

David Cameron is a founder member of the pillow buriers.  In his first conference speech as Conservative leader, he told his party that they had alienated voters by banging on about Europe.  He is now going to bang on about Europe for a couple of years or so.  On his own analysis, this does not sound like a promising strategy for his party to follow.

The Conservative party is currently in a holding pattern.  Before David Cameron announces what his renegotiation has achieved, it suits neither side to prejudge the outcome (even though we could probably write down long lists of Conservative MPs who will be Remainders and Leavers with a fair degree of accuracy today).

So both sides politely stress the need to see what can be achieved while using subtle inflections to suggest what they consider the likelihood or otherwise of David Cameron bringing home sufficient bacon.  In the meantime, every political topic is seen through a prism of EU membership.  We haven’t yet had an EU referendum angle on the tax credits reforms, but give it time and I’m sure someone will find one.

But this is where the traditionalist right’s loathing of David Cameron matters.  They don’t like him and they sure as hell don’t trust him.  They think that he is going to rig the vote against them and they’re determined not to let that happen.  So far they have sniped at him over the wording of the referendum question, kept pawing at whether and to what extent the government will go into purdah during the referendum campaign and are now calling for him to suspend collective Cabinet responsibility on the subject of the EU referendum.  They are approaching these subjects in the same way that the Americans approached discussions with the Iranians over the nuclear talks, with the same complete absence of any goodwill.

What will happen once the renegotiation is announced?  The live-and-breathers will declare that the renegotiation is nowhere near good enough.  David Cameron will commend it with measured but palpable enthusiasm.  Then the pillow buriers will need to reach their decisions.

In this respect at least, they will be very representative of the wider British public.  The public aren’t enthusiastic about the EU and some aspects of it enrage them.  Equally, they have a general sense that it probably gives benefits to Britain that they don’t fully appreciate.  Whether national identity or perceived economic interest wins out will be a personal decision for each pillow-burying Conservative MP, depending in considerable part on temperament and the extent of their desire to show loyalty to the party hierarchy.

Such MPs will not wish to see the party split over the question of EU membership and will work hard to avoid such an outcome.  The challenge that the Conservatives are going to face is to ensure that the live-and-breathers keep their passion on a short leash.  Words are easier spoken than unspoken and aggressive hostility is likely to be met with the same.  It is easy to see how bitter civil war could break out with no one really wanting it.

There are undoubtedly more pillow buriers than live-and-breathers, but the live-and-breathers are quite numerous enough to create havoc if they get out of control.  Will the Conservatives have enough self-discipline to keep their ranks under control?  I guess there’s a first time for everything.  The smart money must be factoring in the high likelihood that by the end of the referendum campaign some Conservatives will not be on speaking terms.


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