In January of this year, David Cameron had a problem. Over the past few years his party had grown divided over the UK’s membership in the European Union.
What’s more, they were slowly being squeezed by an upstart party, Nigel Farage’s UKIP — an anti-immigration, anti-Europe party that had slowly but surely been gaining in opinion polls, while Cameron’s Conservative Party slowly but surely made losses.
So Cameron had a plan. In a widely anticipated speech, the British prime minister announced a referendum on Europe membership would take place between 2015 and the end of 2017.
At first it seemed like a brilliant tactic, placating the eurosceptics in UKIP and his own party by agreeing to put the vote in the public’s hands. The timing was key too. By setting the date a few years in the future, after the UK’s next general election, he could concentrate on what really mattered — actually winning the election (the Conservatives, part of a coalition government, have trailed the opposition party Labour in all recent opinion polls).
Now, four months later, one thing is clear. The plan was an potentially devastating failure.
No one was appeased
“All he’s trying to do is to kick the can down the road and to try and get UKIP off his back,” Nigel Farage said after the referendum was announced.
Farage’s viewpoint seems popular. According to one recent YouGov poll, just 17% think he feels strongly about the issue, while 64% think it was a “tactical calculation.” 55% believe Farage feels strongly about Europe, for contrast, with just 22% thinking its a calculation.
What’s more, by accepting that Europe is an issue, Cameron seems to be accepting UKIP’s grievance, perhaps further legitmising the party. Earlier this month, UKIP had a huge night in local elections, gaining a large number of council seats while the Conservatives lost seats.
The rebels in the Conservative party don’t appear to have been placated either. The Financial Times notes that the 40 or so “unbiddable” rebels in the party have been joined by the most rebellious backbench of any party since the second world war.
These rebels have continued to cause problems on Europe since January. Most recently, 114 Tory rebels backed a bill that slammed the lack of an in-out EU referendum Bill in the Queen’s Speech (which sets out a legislative agenda for each new parliament), forcing Cameron to put out a draft bill reassuring the rebels of his intentions.
The prime minister has also been forced to put a three-line whip (the most serious) on the government’s referendum bill, which will take place next month.
The situation has soured to the point where an unnamed source, close to Cameron, was quoted as calling the Tory activists “swivel-eyed loons.” Perhaps not coincidentally, UKIP scored its highest result ever in one controversial poll after the comments went out — coming just 2 points within the Conservatives.
The bigger issue
There’s one strange facit of this whole situation. Despite the fact that the issue of Europe has engulfed the Conservative Party, the average voter doesn’t necessarily care too much about it.
The most recent YouGov poll found that 72% of voters think that the economy is amongst the top three most important issues for the UK. 56% voted for immigration and 31% voted for health care.
While the polls do show that Europe has become a much larger issue for voters in the past few years, there is a serious danger that the Conservatives are obsessing over Europe at a time when most voters are more worried about other things — unemployment, living standards, etc.
Perhaps the rift within the Conservative Party perhaps isn’t even about Europe. The UK Polling Report has written that “UKIP support is not particularly connected with Europe, it is an anti-immigration vote and protest vote against some aspects of modern Britain, a general reactionary vote in support of taking Britain back to a status quo ante.”
This is probably why the “swivel-eyed loons” comment was so controversial and why the Europe rebellion has coincided with a backlash against Cameron’s gay marriage plans. The Eton-educated Conservative elite that Cameron is both a part of and surrounds himself with may be comfortable with modern England, but the Conservative’s middle class base — the stereotypical “little Englanders” who have little in common with Cameron’s global mindset.
Can Cameron survive?
If 46 Conservative MPs request a leadership contest, one must be held, and Paddy Power gives odds of 9/2 that Cameron will face a challenge and lose.
The Financial Times lists a few possible rivals, but there’s a problem with them all — can they actually win the 2015 election?
Cameron’s personal popularity remains relatively high in polls when contrasted to Labour leader Ed Miliband and Liberal Democrat’s Nick Clegg. Given that neither Labour or the Lib Dems will commit to a 2015 EU referendum, the Tory rebels may decide Cameron is their best bet.
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