Conservative Modernisation 5: European integration - from silence to salience and schismBy Philip Lynch on 22 April 2015
The re-emergence of European integration as a difficult issue for the Conservative Party has exposed the limitations of David Cameron’s modernisation project. In opposition, Cameron had urged his party to stop ‘banging on about Europe’ but in government the Eurozone crisis increased the saliency of the issue and Cameron had to contend with intra-party divisions and the rise of the UK Independence Party (UKIP).
Successful party modernisation involves the reappraisal of party ideology and strategy in response to changes in the economy, state and international arena as well as changes in party competition. Cameron’s modernisation approached the European Union (EU) issue primarily in terms of the latter, lowering its salience in order to rebrand the party and minimise internal dissent. But by suppressing rather than addressing the EU issue, Cameron afforded those who favoured withdrawal or fundamental renegotiation the space to set the agenda – and he would later play catch-up.
Cameron’s pragmatic approach, seeking to avoid conflict in the EU and in his own party, was blown off course by the Eurozone sovereign debt crisis. The Conservative leadership accepted that Eurozone states should pursue further integration to rescue the euro, thereby accelerating the development of a multi-speed Europe. In return, it sought safeguards for the UK and on the single market. But these were not always forthcoming – hence Cameron’s veto of an EU fiscal compact treaty in 2011 – and even if they were, UK influence would be weakened.
A toxic combination of factors re-opened Conservative divisions on European integration: the Eurozone crisis, the dilution of Conservative policy in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, the growth of hard Euroscepticism on the Conservative benches, the rise of UKIP and ineffectual party management. 103 Conservative MPs rebelled on EU issues under the coalition, the most notable rebellion coming in October 2011 when 81 Conservatives defied a three-line whip to support a backbench motion on an EU referendum. Cameron’s subsequent shift to support an in-out referendum did not quell the dissent, and he only prevented another sizeable revolt by granting backbenchers a free vote on a motion expressing regret at the absence of an EU referendum bill from the 2013 Queen’s Speech.
The main fault-line was no longer between Europhiles – who launched European Mainstream but broadly support the leadership – and Eurosceptics, but between soft Eurosceptics who favoured membership of a reformed EU and hard Eurosceptics seeking either fundamental renegotiation or withdrawal. The centre of gravity in the party has now shifted towards a maximal revisionist position. Some 100 Conservative MPs support the Fresh Start Project, whose EU reform agenda goes further than Cameron’s, and the European Scrutiny Committee’s proposals that Parliament should be able to veto draft EU legislation and disapply existing laws.
Cameron’s modernisation failed to broaden Conservative support sufficiently to win a parliamentary majority in 2010 and has since seen the party’s prospects of developing a cross-class, national appeal diminished by the most significant schism on the Right of the modern era. UKIP has taken support disproportionately from the Conservatives, with one in six 2010 Conservatives voters likely to vote for UKIP in 2015. Furthermore, UKIP is gaining support from working class social conservatives, a demographic (the ‘Tebbit Tories’) previously receptive to Conservative messages but among whom they are now struggling to make inroads. Meanwhile, the defections of Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless show that UKIP is a viable alternative for disaffected Eurosceptic MPs. Finally, UKIP also damages the Conservatives by framing debates on EU and immigration, making it more difficult for them to both lower the salience of these issues and claim policy success.
Cameron’s pledge to negotiate a ‘new settlement’ for the UK in the EU and hold an in-out referendum in 2017 was largely borne from considerations of party management and party competition. But renegotiation and a referendum may yet provide the elusive formula that resolves Conservative difficulties on the EU issue. A new settlement with the EU could provide a clearer footing for the UK in the EU and for relations between Eurozone and non-Eurozone states more broadly. It would also restore a degree of executive autonomy and bolster Conservative political economy. Opinion polls show a large majority favouring membership of a reformed EU and Cameron will be hopeful that, as in the 1975 EEC referendum, limited reforms will be sufficient to deliver a ‘yes’ vote.
But Cameron’s position has risks. While many voters might settle for limited EU reform, many Conservative MPs will not. A referendum could detonate what William Hague called the Conservatives’ ticking bomb, bringing greater division and more defections. Within the EU, some of the reforms Cameron seeks, notably on free movement, will be difficult to achieve. If he is successful, the strategic choice may still boil down to limited influence in the EU or limited influence outside it. With the party leadership and much of the business community favouring the former but a growing number of MPs the latter, the Conservatives risk a decoupling of their historic roles as the party of business and of the nation-state.
The EU issue was largely absent at the birth of Cameron’s modernisation project but, if the schisms in the Conservative Party and on the Right contribute to Conservative defeat in 2015, it will have played an important part in its demise. As John Major – who knows more than most about Conservative problems on the EU issue – has argued, Cameron’s renegotiation-referendum position may yet provide the optimal strategy for resolving both Conservative divisions and the UK’s status in a changing EU. But if the Conservatives lose power, Cameron’s period in office will, like Major’s, be remembered for dissent and declining influence. A more Eurosceptic Conservative leader and position are then likely to emerge.
Philip Lynch is Senior Lecturer in Politics at the University of Leicester. His article ‘Conservative Modernisation and European Integration: From Silence to Salience and Schism’ appears in British Politics. He tweets at @DrPhilipLynch
This is the fifth in a series of blogs on Conservative Party modernisation, based on a selection of papers from the forthcoming special issue of British Politics on 'Conservative Modernisation From Opposition to Government'. The issue, which is edited by Peter Kerr, Steve Kettell and Richard Hayton, was the product of the 'Whatever Happened to Conservative Modernisation' workshop event hosted by the University of Leeds in September 2014, and organised jointly by the PSA Conservatives and Conservatism Specialist Group and British Politics'.
Image: President of the European Council CC BY-NC-ND