In a week when David Cameron is being admired in the United Kingdom for standing firm in Europe in a heroic if always doomed bid to prevent the inevitable appointment Jean-Claude Juncker as President of the European Commission, it may seem churlish to raise some potentially profound implications of these developments for the very survival of the Conservative Party as we know it. But a serious challenge lies ahead.
Let us be clear, although he was resoundingly defeated in his efforts to block the Juncker appointment, and has said this will make it harder to keep Britain in the European Union, Cameron has not suggested for one moment that he will be switching sides to vote for the “out” camp in the 2017 “In/Out” Referendum on Europe to which he has given an irrevocable commitment. On the contrary, he has made it clear that he will be working to keep Britain in the EU whatever success he has in his mission to “renegotiate” the terms of that membership.
David Cameron and the other key players in his Cabinet are sincere in their desire to “repatriate” from the EU some powers and to secure national control once again over some policy areas. But there is little sign yet of an appetite elsewhere in Europe to permit them to do so. Last week’s events show clearly that Cameron will meet concerted resistance from the wider EU which remains committed to ever closer union.
The chances are that in the period 2015 to 2017, during which Cameron will be seeking his new deal with Europe, there will be a few “sops” to the United Kingdom, a bit of window-dressing and a rearranging of the chairs on the deck of the Titanic of democracy and accountability that the EU has become.
But David Cameron is unlikely to admit that he has failed to deliver what the people of the United Kingdom by such a majority wish to see – a fundamental change in our relationship with the European Union – since to admit such failure would be electorally calamitous.
Bar a fundamental change in attitude by the institutions of the European Union (all of which are by huge majorities committed to the project despite the success of some Eurosceptic parties in the EU Parliamentary elections) there will be no new deal for Britain and David Cameron will have no real political choice other than to present this window-dressing as political success. He will be forced to urge our continued membership of the Union on the superficially newly agreed, though fundamentally little-changed, terms.
Cameron, when it comes down to it, like the British Labour Leader, Ed Miliband, and the Liberal Democrat Leader, Nick Clegg, is at heart in favour of our continued membership of the EU and would be under colossal pressure from British business to ensure we remain “In”. In short, the three main political parties will all be supporting continued EU membership and will be selling that pig in a poke back to the British voters in the referendum campaign.
It is not only that a huge chunk of the electorate are not in the market for repackaged, “new improved, but little-changed Europe”; many Conservative Members of the Westminster Parliament will take the same view.
Whether Conservative MPs are officially given a “free vote” in the referendum no longer really matters. Many of them will demand and simply take one, because the issue is now fundamental to their political psyche. So passionate are many Conservative MPs and the overwhelming majority of their grassroots activists that they will openly campaign for a “no” vote, against the Leadership if necessary.
So, Cameron risks a fundamental split in his Party in 2017 with the Euro-sceptic right in practice becoming co-belligerents alongside Ukip, if not their allies or partners. There will be other splits in the Labour and Lib Dem parties, but perhaps not as great as the ripping in two that the heart of the Conservatives will face.
If the country votes “yes” to continued EU membership, it is unlikely that the Euro-sceptic right of the Conservatives will be other than bitterly disappointed, indeed they will feel betrayed just as they now feel they were by Cameron’s predecessor Edward Heath when he took Britain into the EU in 1973. There will be a crisis of confidence in Conservatism, and probably a Leadership challenge.
But a “Yes” vote is far from assured. With our without Scotland post the devolution poll in Scotland this September, Britain may well vote “no” to continued EU membership; which then sets in stone the great schism in the Conservative Party, leaving David Cameron and the pro-EU faction redundant and cast out into the political wilderness. That outcome smashes the mould of British politics for generations to come.
Either way, the announcement on 23rd January 2013 by David Cameron of the referendum in 2017 may well be judged by history as the day he lit the slow burning blue touch paper; and the explosion that precipitates could destroy the Conservative Party as we know it.
The Whitehouse Consultancy is one of Europe’s leading public affairs agencies.chriswhitehouse