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FEPS article: Just how close are we to Brexit?

David Cameron can have a united Conservative Party or he can keep Britain in the EU. He will struggle to have both, says Roger Liddle.

Two years ago next week, David Cameron delivered his Bloomberg speech. He not only pledged the Conservatives to holding an in-out referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union if they win this spring’s general election, he also struck the most defiantly pro-European line of any Tory leader since John Major.

Arguing that “Britain’s national interest is best served in a flexible, adaptable and open European Union”, he vowed that he would “not rest until this debate is won”.

In response to this positive tone, public support for Europe rallied as the diminished ranks of British pro-Europeans, particularly in business, were licensed to be more vocal in making the case for membership.

Indeed, despite the rise in support for UKIP, Cameron’s steady drift to a more Eurosceptic agenda of renegotiation since Bloomberg, and a relentless drum-beat of anti-European hostility in much of the press, it is important to remember that an October 2014 poll conducted by Ipsos Mori showed 56 per cent of voters opting for Britain staying in the EU and 36 per cent for getting out.

Mori have been polling the same question since the 1970s. The October 2014 figure was the highest figure supporting British membership since the early 1990s.

But the volatile state of public opinion, the connection between Europe and the politically charged issue of immigration, and the uncertainties over the outcome of the general election – especially if UKIP put in a strong showing – means the risk of Brexit still remains very real.

Many pro-Europeans have reassured themselves that, if he wins in May, Cameron can pull off the same renegotiation/referendum manoeuvre that Harold Wilson achieved in 1975. However, as I argue in my new book, The Risk of Brexit: Britain and Europe in 2015, there are three crucial differences of circumstance. Each should give pro-Europeans cause for concern.

First, in 1975, all of the press (with the exception of the small-circulation communist Morning Star) supported a yes vote.

The influence of the press has declined since the 1970s, with circulation in sharp decline and the rise of new media, but it still has an agenda-setting capability that the broadcasters tend to follow. Since the late 1980s, the great majority of the British press has not just been Eurosceptic; on Europe, it has been positively malign. Europhobic foreign proprietors, such as Rupert Murdoch, have consistently provided a platform for a generation of centre-right journalists and commentators determined to uphold the Thatcherite flame.

They uphold myths about Margaret Thatcher and Europe, principally that the notion that essence of Thatcherism was a virulent anti- Europeanism that in truth she never pursued for much of her period as prime minister.

Second, in 1975, business support for the UK’s EU membership was crucial.

Surveys demonstrate that business today remains strongly in favour of membership, but there are vociferous exceptions, especially among some hedge fund managers in the City who donate significant amounts to the Conservative party. Sometimes this conveys an impression that the City is anti-Europe, when in fact the overwhelming majority in the City see a crucial dimension of its future success as remaining the vibrant financial centre of Europe’s single market.

As for manufacturing, much is now owned by UK-based foreign companies, who have been reluctant to engage in what they see as domestic politics.

The power of business to make its voice heard was shown in the last few days of the Scottish referendum in September 2014. Yet the business message carries significantly less conviction with the public than two generations ago in the wake of a succession of City scandals and the perceived greed of top business executives. Business views matter, but pro-Europeans have to do better than rely on threats.

Third, in 1975, Harold Wilson had a divided Labour party to contend with, just as David Cameron today has a divided Conservative party; but there were crucial differences.

The politics of managing a divided government party were easier in 1975; Wilson persuaded a clear majority of the cabinet to back his renegotiated terms, but a narrow majority of Labour MPs and a two-to-one majority of the Labour conference opposed them. Wilson handled this division by proposing an ‘agreement to differ’ which allowed individual Labour ministers and party members to campaign against the government’s recommendation. Could Cameron not do the same?

Cameron faces a much more serious problem in maintaining party unity. In 1975, all the electable contenders for the Wilson succession (Wilson was to retire in March 1976) loyally supported his renegotiation strategy: the bulk of opposition came from the traditional left of the party, still then a minority force in the parliamentary Labour party which still retained the sole constitutional right to elect the party leader.

By 2017, if Cameron wins the general election, he will have been prime minister for more than seven years and party leader for more than 12. The manoeuvring for his succession will well and truly have been joined – and the final choice will be made (as Conservative party rules now stand) in a ballot of all party members between the two candidates most favoured by the party’s MPs.

There would be a great temptation for a leading contender (possibly Boris Johnson) to ‘cut and run’ from the party leadership and oppose whatever renegotiation deal Cameron is minded to recommend. For Cameron, this could make the politics of carrying his party with him to support any deal he has concluded far more complex than that faced by Wilson.

There is no doubt that were David Cameron to make a firm recommendation in a referendum for continued membership, this would carry some weight. In an age where politics and politicians are deeply tarnished, Cameron carries more respect as prime minister than any other figure in British politics. Cameron would have influence with undecided and Conservative voters, just as his intervention in the voting reform referendum in May 2011 proved to have a decisive impact.

And his support for our EU membership would almost certainly be backed by the leaders of Labour and the Liberal Democrats, making for a strong cross-party coalition.

But what will be Cameron’s call?

Cameron comes from an old-fashioned school of Conservative pragmatism, which believes that, above all else, it is in the national interest that the Conservative party remains united and in power. But every day it is more and more evident that he cannot achieve this objective and keep Britain in the EU at the same time.

Hardline anti-Europeanism is only of burning concern to a section of the political class. But in a section of the Conservative party, it really does burn.

Roger Liddle is UK Labour member of the House of Lords and a pro-chancellor of the University of Lancaster.  Chair of Policy Network and Member of the FEPS Scientific Council. He is the author of The Risk of Brexit: Britain and Europe in 2015.

This article was originally published by Left Foot Forward.

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