Fern Tomlinson examines the awkward situation Cameron has found himself in over Europe and an in/out referendum.
Europe is always a sticky issue for the Conservative party. Decades of splits between the Euroskeptic wing and the Europhile wing have left their mark on the now wary party. When Cameron won the Conservative leadership in 2005, he deliberately avoided the question of Europe that his predecessors had been so obsessed with. This reluctance to address the issue continued throughout his time in opposition, and set the precedent for the topic to be largely ignored in the 2010 election campaign.
Yet once elected Cameron (potentially due to the Liberal Democrat influence) has been surprisingly engaged with the EU. He has defended British interests in terms of the Eurozone crisis, and been actively involved in decision-making and debates at the EU level. This does not mean that he welcomes the issue making a return to domestic politics however.
The past weeks have been difficult for the government as a whole, and especially the Conservative party. The media storm over Liam Fox and Adam Werrity once again caused people to question their trust of politicians, while high inflation figures and continued problems in the Eurozone caused further concerns for over-stretched voters. The electorate is therefore not in the best mood for party politics and old debates resurfacing in Westminster. Many people remember the days of Major’s rebellious “bastards” and Thatcher’s Bruges speech. For the Conservative party to be returning to the issue of the EU is therefore laden with nervous expectations of heated conflict and strong arguments.
Of course, if Cameron had his way there would be no debate on the EU at all. The cause for this sudden flurry of panic in Westminster is the fact that an online petition calling for a referendum received over 100,000 signatures. This in turn triggered the Commons Backbench Business Committee to consider the proposal, and agree to hold a debate on the issue.
Cameron has clearly stated he does not think a referendum at this time is the right thing to do, and is likely to impose a three-line whip on Tory MPs. With the Liberal Democrats and Labour also urging their MPs to vote against the proposed referendum, it should be an easy win for the government. However, there are a number of influential and committed backbench MPs who appear to be leading a minor revolution against the Prime Minister. Among the Conservative MPs to have signed a motion calling for the referendum are David Davis, John Redwood and Graham Brady, the chair of the backbench 1922 Committee.
With the government threatening that any senior government figures who defy the party will face losing their jobs, MPs face some tough decisions. For many, Europe is a conviction-issue where they will feel obliged to vote according to their personal views, and not because of the party line. Conservative MP Stewart Jackson has already said that he will vote for a referendum, even if it costs him is job as a Parliamentary Private Secretary. It is likely that more will follow his lead.
Although there may not be enough MPs who care enough about the issue to risk their jobs over, there are certainly going to be enough to make the government worried, and the media intrigued. If the 61 MPs who have so far signed the motion to support a referendum all vote against their parties then that alone will prove to be a significant embarrassment for Cameron. Moreover, any rebellion, especially over the sensitive issue of Europe, will not be forgotten easily. The last thing Cameron needs right now is suspicion from his European counterparts about Britain’s commitment to the European project. Markets and politics are both too fragile for any doubt at this crucial stage.