23rd Feb 2019

Column / Brexit Briefing

The Tories' last EU battle?

  • "I don’t want to stab the prime minister in the back - I want to stab him in the front" (Photo:

In case you hadn’t noticed, the battle of Britain’s EU membership has become a proxy war for the soul of the Conservative party.

It has been clear for several weeks that anything but a crushing victory (of the 60-40 variety) for Remain will prompt a swift leadership challenge to David Cameron. A defeat for Remain would almost certainly mean his resignation.

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Coming just a year after Cameron surprisingly managed to secure the first majority Conservative victory since 1992, a public knifing seems utterly baffling. The EU is still a relatively unimportant issue in the eyes of most voters. There are some zealots in both the Remain and Leave camps who won’t want to accept defeat, but the vast majority would accept it.

Besides, Cameron will be long gone by the next general election in 2020 and, as the Conservatives are painfully aware from recent experience; split parties lose elections.

It is nearly 25 years since the EU feud began in earnest when Sir John Major, as Conservative prime minister, negotiated and passed the Maastricht treaty in 1993, in the teeth of a backbench rebellion.

The Maastricht rebels cost Major his parliamentary majority and the Conservative party its unity and credibility.

The hated John Major

In a BBC interview in mid-May, leader Brexit campaigner Iain Duncan Smith was shown a quote by Major accusing the Leave campaign of “pure demagoguery” and “mischief making” in its lurid claims on immigration.

One of the Maastricht rebels himself, Smith visibly winced at the mention of the hated Major - a reminder that the origins of the Tories’ EU feud lie a generation in the past. He made a visible effort to control himself before stating that Major was talking “rubbish”.

In a sense, Major had it easy. Back then there were probably no more than 30 Tory MPs who wanted to leave the EU. The number is now at least 150. Cameron has a 12 seat majority, compared to Major’s 21.

Cameron promised the referendum in January 2013, in large part, to placate the eurosceptic wing. This, surely, was a mistake. Only a referendum with the right result would be enough to satisfy them. It is same mind-set, ironically, that the same eurosceptics levelled at EU leaders for trying to force through the Lisbon Treaty after it was rejected by the Irish referendum.

One development in the last week has been a growing number of pleas for post-referendum unity from party grandees.

Aggressive fervour

Tory MEP and Brexit supporter Dan Hannan has argued that the civil war claim is “plain false”. He has said that “by allowing MPs to follow their consciences” Cameron, though misguided on Europe, deserves some post-referendum loyalty for giving them the plebiscite in the first place.

But this is a minority viewpoint. A more common view among MPs and grassroots party members is that the prime minister is guilty of betrayal by campaigning for EU membership.

“I don’t want to stab the prime minister in the back - I want to stab him in the front so I can see the expression on his face. You’d have to twist the knife, though, because we want it back for [George] Osborne [the pro-EU British chancllor],” one unnamed eurosceptic MP told the Sunday Times (28 May).

Three pro-Brexit backbench MPs, Nadine Dorries, Andrew Bridgen and Bill Cash, have threatened the prime minister with a no-confidence vote, accusing him of aggressive and personal attacks on ministers who back the Leave side.

All the leading Brexit campaigners for Brexit - including ex-London mayor Boris Johnson and Tory MPs Duncan-Smith and Michael Gove - claim publicly that they want Cameron to carry on as prime minister regardless of the result.

A battle still to come

But their sincerity is open to question.

In reality, as soon as Johnson decided that backing the Leave vote was the best way for him to replace his fellow Etonian and Oxford rival in Downing Street, the Leave campaign became a de facto alternative government.

The Conservatives might get away with the internal blood-letting, however.

Labour is in the middle of its own, equally ideological and equally personal, civil war between grassroots supporters of Jeremy Corbyn and the vast majority of Labour MPs and grandees who view his leadership as electoral suicide and his supporters as hard-left wrecking balls.

Even so, the referendum was intended to be the last battle for the Conservatives’ soul on Europe. But barring a decisive victory for either side, that battle looks like it is set to keep rumbling on.

Benjamin Fox, a former reporter for EUobserver, is a consultant with Sovereign Strategy and a freelance writer. He writes the "UK referendum briefing" column during the 23 June referendum campaign

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