When David Cameron ran for the leadership of the Conservative Party, he famous pledged that his party would henceforth “stop banging on about Europe”. Unfortunately for him, his party had other ideas.
Eurosceptism has become the norm within the Conservative Party. I once overheard a conversation between two Tory backbenchers at Conservative Party conference who were wondering how a certain Tory MP ever got selected with what they saw as “pro-European” views (it doesn’t take much to be considered under this description within the modern day Parliamentary Conservative Party). It has become the norm as opposed to the exception, partly through the selection process itself. What’s strange about this is that the Conservative Party’s natural allies for over a century, the business community, are mostly against the idea of Brexit.
Some because it directly affects who they sell to and how. Some because of the uncertain economic climate that Britain leaving the EU would undoubtedly bring. Yes, a lot of people in the City hate EU red tape; this doesn’t mean that they are all itching to leave, for a whole raft of reasons.
Even the notion of having the referendum in the first place is bad for British business interests. Whichever way the referendum works out, Stay In, Get Out, just holding the thing is bad for business in the UK. All that uncertainty about the future of most of the country’s bilateral treaties will be very tough going for certain sectors – and you affect one, you affect many others, who affect many others, and pretty soon everyone is affected and we’re in another recession. Any Tory government prides itself on its handling of the British economy – how would it look to have directly caused an economic downturn over what amounts to an internal party spat?
The business community is by and large scared to talk positively about the European Union in public. This is due to a perceived (and probably now, mostly correct) assumption that the British public is, in the majority, Eurosceptic. But if a referendum does happen, trust me when I say they will not remain silent. And what if Cameron does decide to campaign for “Out”, as he has said he would do if the results of his renegotiation prove to be unsuccessful? Would the leader of the Conservative Party and the vast majority of his parliamentary party really put themselves on the other side of an argument with the wealth creators of the nation? That would be political suicide.
This is one of the reasons why making a Eurosceptic argument from the left is so much easier than from the right, economically speaking. The EU is essentially a liberal, free trade oriented project; protectionism of the kind advocated by ardent socialists just isn’t possible while a country remains a member of the European Union, or even the European Economic Community. UKIP themselves are finding this to be the case; their appeals to Labour voters always sound a lot more intellectually coherent than the stuff they try and throw at Tory voters (although given what Farage and other have muttered in the past, much less honest).
Sooner or later, each Conservative MP is going to have to decide if they care more about the free market and its interests, or about narrow nationalism. I can’t wait to see who picks which.