There will be no honeymoon for our returning Prime Minister.
He can savour his moment of triumph, but governing over the next five years with such a slim majority — the smallest of any incoming Conservative PM since the 1840s — will leave him in hock to even the smallest of rebellions on his backbenches, not least on Europe.
Of course, his narrow overall majority means that his plan for an in-out EU referendum will go ahead — and without any possible attenuating influence from the Lib Dems regarding the exact question, the franchise (expat Brits? 16-year-olds?), or the timing. This is a referendum he originally promised, remember, to postpone the day of reckoning in his party’s brewing civil war on Europe until after the election. Well, the election is won, and the war will now spill out into the public domain.
As soon as Cameron spells out the demands he intends to make to our European partners, his party will divide. At one end will be those who passionately hate Europe and consider any potential changes insufficient. Many of them want to walk out of the EU under any circumstances, and have already been trying to bounce Cameron into making impossible demands. (As one pro-European cabinet minister reportedly put it last year, “The only thing that will satisfy them is bombing Berlin”.) At the other end will be those — especially those close to business — who recognise that he’s taking inordinate risks. Between these two positions will be a mish-mash of individual posturing MPs, torn between wanting to make a mark to please their grassroots, and not wanting to rock the government’s fragile boat.
Given Cameron’s narrow majority, it will be the eurosceptic extremists who have the whip hand, forcing him into making ever more radical demands. And he has a very poor record of facing them down.
The traditional financial backers of the Conservative party — big industry and small businesses — will be aghast at the risk of leaving the EU. Moderate and pro-European Conservatives (yes, there are still some!) will raise their heads above the parapet. And the civil war will escalate.
Cameron has been able to keep the lid on this internal conflict during the general election by effectively postponing the problem. But he will be unable to do so any longer. Prepare for spectacular disintegration!
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