Cameron’s difficulties start now

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.

It is indeed hard to see how the Conservative party can reconcile such irreconcilably conflicting positions on Europe as those held by, for example, Damian Green and John Redwood.

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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4 Comments

  1. I think your comment is too pessimistic. A referendum is fought in a different landscape than a general election with 650 constituencies with the winning majority carried less than 40 percent of the total vote. And Cameron yesterday shown himself a winner also to the EU-sceptics within his party. The EU-haters within the Conservative party are loud and factresistent, as much living in a phantasy world of a past that never was as UKIP. Cameron knows that.
    From my Swedish viewpoint it is important that you and other experienced Labour leaders keep your head cool and stick to your fact-based agenda seeking support from your electorate for a fair EU with a better and more visible social and environmental agenda which addresses problems felt daily by citizens in e.g. Britain, Scandinavia who know feel ignored by Brussels.
    EU without Britain would be disastrous for Europe including Britain. It is crucial that the new Labour leader understands this.

  2. My view is that we need a strong cross-party, non-party politics campaign to keep the UK in the EU. This must be separate from and quite different in kind from a political party campaign and probably new and not associated with incumbant organisations. First we need a campaign to help the electorate understand the benefits! Not the nitty gritty reporting of bureaucratic decision making but very simple messages. Something inspiring. And this needs to start now. It needs to be positive and forward looking, and bringing together spokesmen from all quarters of society and from all ages.

  3. A brilliant analysis! After all the anti EU posturing to impress supporters in the UK he will hardly be in a position to get much help from EU leaders. At best he will come up with some papering over the cracks fudge that will impress nobody. And what about the Union if the opt outers win? A can of worms indeed.

  4. isn’t it time to unmask the Tory pretence that the UK is disengaged from its EU partners and encourage the PM to break HMG’s silence over it holding the Eu Presidency in the year that marks the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Rome Treaty establishing the EEC?

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