Tories and the EU: it was never going to be easy for Cameron
As the PM attends another Brussels summit, he has to accept his party is now fundamentally eurosceptic
WHEN David Cameron became leader of the Conservative Party back in 2005, one of the first things he did was tell his MPs to "stop banging on about Europe". Remarkably, it worked. For the next five years the party – at least by its standards - managed to shut up about the EU. Once back in office, however, the self-restraint began to fray.
Last October, 81 Tory backbenchers defied the whip to vote for a motion calling for a referendum on Britain's future in the EU. With backing from the Lib Dems and Labour Cameron saw them off, but it soon became clear that it was a pyrrhic victory.
Time was when a Conservative leader could reckon on playing off the pro- and anti-EU factions in his party. But nowadays the former – with perhaps the ageing exception of Ken Clarke – simply don't exist. The October 2011 rebellion reinforced what most political observers already knew, but Cameron has always been unwilling to acknowledge: the Conservative Party is now fundamentally eurosceptic.
That is not to say that it is united on the subject, but that the centre ground within the party has moved. Today, there are those that regard the EU as a regrettable fact of life but not one they are willing to expend much political capital on. And there is the rest of the party, probably the majority, which wants either a radical negotiation of our membership or to get out altogether.
Faced with this, Cameron has had little choice but to spend the last year tacking to the right. The first sign came when he vetoed the new EU fiscal treaty just before Christmas.
Since then both the PM and George Osborne have dropped broad hints that the quid pro quo for Britain agreeing to a new fiscal settlement in the Eurozone to save the single currency, would be a much looser relationship with the rest of the bloc for this country. Once that is agreed, a referendum limited to the new deal could follow – probably in the next parliament.
The hope in No 10 is that this will be enough to keep the eurosceptics at bay, without unduly unsettling business and the City or the rest of the EU. As stopgaps go, it is not a bad one. Whether it can see Cameron through the two-and-a-half years until the next election, however, has to be open to doubt.
The obvious problem is that the rest of the EU may not be willing to renegotiate our membership. The eurosceptics' confidence on this crucial point rests largely on the assumption that, because we buy more from the rest of the bloc than they do from us, it must be in their interest to keep us sweet. But as the euro saga has demonstrated, in the EU political considerations often trump economic logic.
Even if we threaten to pull out altogether, as eight Conservative cabinet ministers are now said to be ready to do, they probably will not believe us. The French and Germans might well calculate that, after 40 years in what we used to call the Common Market, our economy is now too dependent on Europe for such threats to be credible. Both Labour and the Lib Dems would agree with them.
The second big problem – at least for the Tories - is that a EU referendum, limited to renegotiation, could very easily end up exacerbating their divisions on the subject rather than resolving them. Many Conservatives would want it to be a question of in or out. When Harold Wilson held the last vote on Europe in 1975, rather than settling the question as far as Labour was concerned it led to the departure of the "gang of four" and the creation of the SDP, followed, eventually, by the Liberal Democrats.
With UKIP already taking chunks out of the Conservative base, a similar Tory split could not be ruled out if any new referendum were to be held. That, of course, is why Labour is also toying with the idea. Contemplating his restive party, Cameron perhaps reckons that is a risk he has to take in order to keep the peace. It is, however, a genie that could prove very hard to put back in the bottle.
Over the years, the Tory eurosceptics have been right about Europe more often than not. They certainly saw through the euro before anybody else. But in politics, unfortunately, being right does not necessarily ensure success – or even survival.