AS the United Kingdom’s party conference season draws to a close, the country can begin looking toward 2016 with a sense of expectation. Prime Minister David Cameron has yet to name a date for the country’s referendum over its continuing membership in the European Union, but there is a good chance that it will take place in the next year. For Cameron’s Conservative Party the subject may not have dominated the discourse at the party conference, but it will have lingered in the background, with everyone present well aware that it has the power to tear the Tory party apart in the coming months.
In theory, Cameron has never been in a more comfortable position than now, entering his sixth year in charge of the United Kingdom. The general elections in May saw the Conservatives win a surprise majority, releasing them from the shackles of their coalition with the Liberal Democrats that had restrained them since 2010. Meanwhile, the Labour Party, the Conservatives’ traditional sparring partner, received its worst result in decades, losing its Scotland support base almost in one fell swoop to the Scottish Nationalists.
Since the election, the Tories have watched with glee as Labour has chosen a seemingly unelectable candidate as leader. Jeremy Corbyn, a veteran from the left of the Labour Party, has long desired the United Kingdom’s departure from NATO and has stated a wish to renationalize the railways. But the country is still clinging to the dream of world power status and harbors deep fears of union-led policy following a rough experience in the 1970s. Subsequently, such a platform is unlikely to gain the wide support required to win an election. Meanwhile, the Tories have capitalized, adapting their policies to appeal to swing voters and filling some of the space vacated by the Labour Party. For all intents and purposes, the Tories appear to be standing unchallenged, with a 2020 election victory already in the bag.
But that is before one considers the issue of Europe, the Tories’ most divisive subject. In 1990, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher stood against ceding sovereignty to Brussels, causing Cabinet member and close ally Geoffrey Howe to resign, which enabled others to desert her, leading to her downfall. Her successor, Prime Minister John Major, suffered a sustained revolt from the so-called Maastricht Rebels, a conservative group of lawmakers that constantly held his fragile government to ransom. (Major had a majority of only 18, giving a small number of rebels outsized power.) In this same period, the Euroskeptic UKIP party was born. The Tory party, in opposition after 1997, then acceded to the Euroskeptic impulse and attempted to win the 2001 election on the issue of the European Union’s excessive influence, but the public remained largely unconvinced and Labour was voted in again. Since becoming prime minister in 2010, Cameron has tried to stop the party from — in his words — “banging on about Europe,” aware that it is a subject that both fails to win votes and has the potential to cause strife within his party. However, the rise of UKIP from 2012 onward forced him to act and confront the threat. The referendum was the result.
And though the Tory party stands alone in the British political scene with few challengers, a lingering threat from within remains. Cameron is attempting to renegotiate the United Kingdom’s relationship with Europe, and he claims that he will decide whether to back the “in” or the “out” side only once the results of the renegotiation are clear. But the spirit of the Maastricht Rebels has survived within the party, and since the Euroskeptic wing suspects Cameron of secretly wanting to remain in the bloc at all costs, it is wary lest he try to repeat Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s trick the last time Britain had a referendum, in 1975, inflating the value of the concessions gained in the renegotiation and carrying the public through an “in” vote. As a result, Cameron has already received a taste of Major’s pain as he has attempted to get the vote in favor of “in,” seeing 27 rebels vote against his attempts to loosen the restrictions on the government’s ability to campaign before the vote. In fact, Cameron’s majority of 12 is even slimmer than Major’s, and he had to rely on Labour to help pass the measure.
Cameron’s tactics for dealing with the problem have thus far been obfuscation and ambiguity. To the exasperation of his European negotiating partners, he has yet to lay out his demands, no doubt aware that as soon as they are known they will come under attack from Euroskeptics as being insufficient and from Europeans as being unreasonable. But the confrontation is coming. From the moment he first announced the referendum he set himself on a collision course, both with Britain’s European partners and also with the Euroskeptics of his own party. Whether he bites the bullet and sets the referendum date for summer 2016 or delays as long as he can, the Conservative Party looks set for an extremely rough ride. Cameron’s position may look invincible now, but his party faces its deepest threat internally, and it is Europe that is once again creating the divisions.
© 2015, STRATFOR GEOPOLITICAL INTELLIGENCE