[Skip to Content]

Register to receive the OMFIF Daily Update and trial the OMFIF membership dashboard for a month.

* Required Fields

Member Area Login

Forgotten Password?

Forgotten password

Tory splits will only get worse

Tory splits will only get worse

Over Europe, history can repeat itself

by Meghnad Desai in London

Tue 14 Jun 2016

As the European Union referendum campaign heads towards a nail-biting finish, amid an opinion poll swing towards the Leave camp, we must be aware of the probable asymmetry of interpretation of the 23 June result. Unless the Remain victory is particularly decisive, with a margin of more than 10 percentage points (much less likely than three months ago), agitation for ‘Brexit’ will not go away.

Just look at the Scottish Nationalists’ continued activism, despite the 55%-45% score in favour of the status quo in the September 2014 Scottish referendum. If Brexit wins even by one percentage point, the Leavers will claim they have a democratic mandate.

The losers are bound to cry foul. The side that comes off worse will blame it on voter registration extension, the use of public money, outside interference, lies, racism, and so on. Either way, political convulsion will ensue. When the campaign began, with members of the cabinet lined up against each other – Eton and Oxford ties notwithstanding – the Conservative party’s ‘in’ and ‘out’ groups still seemed likely to kiss and make up after the vote. But the insults and allegations each side has hurled at the other during the debate make this more stable outcome less likely.

David Cameron, the British prime minister, arranged the referendum because he vainly hoped it would heal the Conservatives' split. The party's 'eurowound' has been festering since the evening in November 1990 when Kenneth Clarke, a leading Tory pro-European, advised Margaret Thatcher not to stand in the second round of the leadership challenge against her, leading to her resignation.

Thatcher’s supporters ever since have blamed her demise on the party’s European wing. Conservative eurosceptics made life miserable for John Major, Thatcher’s successor – despite his election victory in 1992. The Conservatives ran through three more leaders before Cameron came on the scene and achieved a partial election win in 2010 and a majority in 2015. He wanted to stop his party’s obsession with Europe. Like Harold Wilson in 1975, Cameron thought a referendum would bridge party differences. Wilson succeeded, though he retired as prime minister within a year and then the Labour party split in 1980.

Will the Conservatives do the same? Let us suppose there is no formal break. But if Cameron carries on as the party’s leader either after or without a challenge, governing will not be easy. The Tory majority is thin and less than the size of the troublesome squad of Brexiteers. They could defeat the government repeatedly. One way out would be if the Blairite wing of the parliamentary Labour party supports the Cameron government either informally or formally before the next election in 2020.

If rebellious Conservative backbenchers make legislation impossible (rather like what has happened to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government in the Indian parliament), the impasse will be difficult to resolve. Parliament can no longer be dissolved at the prime minister’s pleasure. The Fixed Term Parliament Act passed during Cameron’s 2010-15 coalition requires a two-thirds majority either for carrying a no-confidence motion or for bringing forward an election.

So parliament could drift impotently until May 2020 unless there is a formal realignment, as happened twice before – in the Conservative schism over the 1846 repeal of the corn laws and with the Liberals’ cleavage in the 1880s over Irish home rule. Europe is a big enough issue for history to repeat itself. Over and above whether the UK splits with Europe, we should expect divisions within the Conservative party to come ever more explicitly to the fore. It may not be Armageddon on 24 June – but it will not be a pretty sight.

Prof. Lord Meghnad Desai is Advisory Board Chairman of OMFIF and serves as the founder chairman of the Meghnad Desai Academy of Economics in Mumbai. This is No.92 in the series – the 100th article will appear on 23 June.

OMFIF’s series on the UK EU referendum presents a wide variety of perspectives from Britain and around the world ahead of the 23 June poll. We are assuring a balance between many different points of view, in line with OMFIF’s overall neutral stance on the issue.

Logo -Chart -92

Tell a friend View this page in PDF format