Britain: A party divided

Europe hits top spot once again amongst Conservatives as the Commons Referendum debate gets underway. Could the Party split?

This running sore won't heal so long as this big-tent party fails to address the key issue of Europe. Smudge and papering-over-cracks won't wash this time, as PM David Cameron attempts to lash his MPs into compliance with a three-line whip. Up to seventy MPs are projected to defy the leadership, so could this issue once-and-for-all cause a schism?

Cameron has proclaimed that "he is committed to clawing back powers from Brussels but says now is not the time to hold a referendum on leaving the EU as it could threaten the export market" reports The Telegraph.  How could that be the case? The motion before the Commons proposes the referendum would ask a series of questions. I believe the motion under discussion is:

"This House calls upon the Government to introduce a bill in the next session of Parliament to provide for the holding of a national referendum on whether the United Kingdom should remain a member of the European Union, leave the European Union, or renegotiate the terms of its membership in order to create a new relationship based on trade and cooperation."

Cameron appears out of touch with the population at large, as the polls suggest that the EU is hugely unpopular in Britain, with Michael White, assistant editor at The Guardian, tweeting "... new ITV/Comres poll says 2/3 want a refo, but In/Out split is 37 pc each. 41 pc want renegotiation. 26 pc unsure". 

If government is about representing and responding to the needs of the people and managing the nation, is this government responsible?

A high proportion of the Conservative's own MEPs (members of the Strasbourg parliament) are Eurosceptic, with one resigning his seat recently over his own party's line on Europe. And while UKIP, a large Eurosceptic party yet a minnow in Westminster terms, remains unable to bust through the First Past The Post election system, it cannot voice the opinion of great swathes of the population. A Tory split resulting in 50-100 MPs leaving to either join UKIP or form their own new party would finally vocalise the concerns of many.

The Conservatives have a history of patching things up. But the level of frustration on the Tory Right is now so intense that it might be impossible to assuage this current brood of backbenchers. A three-line whip punishes wayward MPs by withdrawing promotion prospects. Yet while Liberal Democrats hold a significant number of government jobs, few Tory backbenchers could enhance careers anyway. A three-line whip has far less impact these days, it seems.

So far, two Conservatives with government jobs have resigned their posts:
  • Stewart Jackson, parliamentary private secretary to the Northern Ireland Secretary, who has effectively resigned saying "he will defy the Government even though it will mean losing the "baubles of ministerial office" The Telegraph reports, and
  • Adam Holloway, parliamentary private secretary to the Minister of State for Europe and NATO in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, who said "If you can't support a particular policy then the honest course of action is of course to stand down, and I want decisions to be made more closely by the people they affect, by local communities, not upwards towards Brussels" ", according to The Telegraph.
A re-alignment of British politics is now on the cards as Cameron angers and frustrates Rightwingers to stay the course with LibDem coalition colleagues. A "refo" is all these people request: a vote by the people to decide their own fate - not really such a treasonous or contentious concept, is it?

Europhiles claim Brits voted before, and of course they did but that was way back in 1975. Then the plebiscite posed "Do you think the UK should stay in the European Community?"  A somewhat leading question, some say.  The response was "Yes".  But back then Britain had only been a member of the European club for a couple of years, and they'd been quite profitable ones. These days, and for most of the past thirty years, the UK suffers a trade deficit with the EU. Last year that amounted to around US$70bn. A pretty unprofitable relationship, I'd say.

Cameron reckons that renegotiation or withdrawal would hit exports. Yes it might, but there are other markets out there: Brazil, India, Australia, Canada, China, Vietnam, Russia, Indonesia, Mexico, Nigeria, Egypt and Turkey, etc. Would it not be better policy to focus on them with equally? 

Europe has been a thorn in the flesh of successive Tory leaders ever since Ted Heath when PM in the 1970s took the UK into the then European Economic Community.  His successor, Margaret Thatcher, fought hard to retain British sovereignty over a raft of measures dictated by Brussels and agreed at treaties. Her replacement, John Major, was forever fending off criticism of his leadership's perceived acquiescence to European policies designed to effect integration between nations. The Labour years intervened, and now Cameron discovers that he, too, is not immune to a thrust from his Right.

Despite all this, the Tories have always held together, unlike their Liberal and Labour counterparts. The Liberal split in the early twentieth century kept them out of power until Nick Clegg took them into coalition with the Conservatives in 2010. The Labour Party was cut in two by the Limehouse Declaration in 1981 and the subsequent emergence of the Social Democratic Party which resulted in Labour failing to win any election until Tony Blair swept them back into power as "New Labour" in 1997.

Could this be the historic moment after which the Conservative Party divides into Liberal-leaning moderates and UKIP-leaning Atlanticists?

Check out all commentaries here.

No comments:

Post a Comment