The Political Risks of a ‘remain’ Brexit vote for the Conservative Party

The Political Risks of a ‘remain’ Brexit vote for the Conservative Party

David Cameron’s gamble to call a referendum on Britain’s EU membership may seem to have succeeded if the outcome will go against a Brexit. The reality will be more unpredictable, and probably less harmonious for the Conservative Party.

Britain’s ruling Conservative Party has been convulsed by divisions over the EU for more than 25 years. The Tories were initially the more pro-European of the UK’s political parties. Things turned sour in the late 1980s, however, when a growing number of Tories came to view the European project as encroaching dirigisme, threatening Britain’s sovereignty and market economy.

Margaret Thatcher’s 1988 Bruges speech was a rallying call – moderate by today’s Tory eurosceptic standards – to those in her party who opposed an ‘ever closer union’ and this intensified following the Maastricht Treaty and humiliating exit from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism in 1992.

Under the leadership of John Major in the 1990s, divisions over Europe (among other things) made Tory Party unity almost impossible and it was only by the mid-2000s that it had apparently been restored. David Cameron tried to ignore the issue but pressure by the now large eurosceptic section of the party’s grassroots agitated for an in/out referendum. This was further complicated by the rise of UKIP to the Conservative’s right.

The Prime Minister reluctantly promised a referendum in his Bloomberg speech in 2013. This was classic Cameron-style: a short term decision to pacify trouble, only to store up more problems for later. The promise of a referendum may have helped win the general election in 2015 but contradictions abound.

Ministers remain in the cabinet whilst criticising the Prime Minister and his government’s policies. Detractors allege that Cameron renegotiated a cosmetic deal with EU leaders and promptly transformed overnight into a committed pro-European, having previously masqueraded as a pseudo-sceptic. Such is the fine line required to be Conservative leader.

Much of the commentary on the Brexit issue has focused on what happens if Britain votes to leave. But what are the implications for the Conservatives if the British public vote – on 23 June – to stay in the EU?

The best case scenario for Cameron would be that eurosceptics in the party, and public, accept the outcome in good grace, respect the will of the electorate and decide to move on. The Prime Minister then hands over the reins of power to George Osbourne before 2020, the Tories win again and Cameron will be remembered by history as an arch-strategist.

Politics, however, is rarely so straightforward. The parliamentary party is split almost equally between Brexit and remain, the grassroots support has steadily become more eurosceptic over the last 25 years and maybe a majority among rank and file members. It is also hard to see the Prime Minister being well-disposed to those who defied him, such as Chris Grayling, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, despite previous good relations.

Brexiters, however, will cry foul and cast aspersions of bias at the establishment, civil servants, the BBC, devious pro-European Conservatives and of course, the EU itself. This process is already in motion. It will take all of David Cameron’s skills to prevent further internecine conflict. Eurosceptic Iain Duncan Smith’s resignation – ostensibly over George Osbourne’s budget – brought some of these differences out into the open.

Much may depend on the margin of victory on the Brexit vote. The 2014 Scottish referendum is one recent example. Inexplicably, having lost the independence referendum 55% to 45%, pro-SNP sentiment increased after the vote, and may be consolidated at the Scottish elections in May.

Many of those who agitate for independence are now motivated by the feeling that they will succeed at the next referendum. This bodes ill for the Conservatives. If the margin of victory for ‘remain’ is slim, eurosceptics may take a similar approach.

Is a split in the Conservative Party likely in these circumstances? Historical comparisons are not favourable. In 1975 Harold Wilson fought a very similar referendum on membership of the then European Community (EC), achieving a much maligned renegotiation in an attempt to heal the split in his party between ‘pro-Marketeers’ and those on the left who thought the European project a Trojan horse for shadowy international capitalism.

Despite overwhelmingly winning a vote to stay in the EC, some of the most pro-European politicians in Labour broke away to form the SDP in 1981.


Some see history repeating itself this time around. Tim Farron, leader of the Liberal Democrats, the most pro-European (although much diminished since its wipeout at the polls last May) party in Britain, recently said that “The offer of the referendum was Cameron’s short-term way of putting a plaster over a wound in the party…The wound is evidently deeper and probably unhealable now..[it is] damaging the Tory party, probably fatally…I was talking to a Tory peer the other day, who just thinks this is the end for them. That there will be some kind of proper split now.”

This viewpoint, however, underestimates the strong tradition of Tory ‘statecraft’ and will to power.

History has shown the Party has time and time again adapted to changing political reality. There may be some defections to UKIP but a formal split seems unlikely.

More probable, to use Albert O. Hirschman’s ‘Exit, Voice, and Loyalty’ formulation, is more dissent within the party. This is where the example of the 1990s may be pertinent to this year’s Brexit vote.

Governing became intolerable with the party increasingly polarised over Europe. This, in theory, gives Labour an opportunity. Jeremy Corbyn, however, was well to the left of the 1981 split – that is to say on the anti-European wing – and his party is anything but unified and therefore probably unlikely to capitalise on any opportunity.

This means the potential for uncertainty in British parliamentary politics remains high, even if Britain votes to remain in the EU this summer. David Cameron’s premiership will prove one thing, however, that referenda are an unsatisfactory means of conducting government.

Categories: Economics, Europe

About Author

Robert Ledger

Robert Ledger is an analyst on European affairs, with a particular focus on the Balkan and Caucasus regions. He has an MA in International Relations from Brunel University and a PhD in political science from Queen Mary University London.