After achieving a shock General Election majority and watching their opposition descend into chaos, the Conservatives are well placed to dominate English politics for the foreseeable future. Yet somehow, the Prime Minister finds himself fighting for his political life in Europe.
Emerging from the General Election with a majority of 12 and a 50-strong “awkward squad” of dissenters, David Cameron has always been vulnerable on Europe. Eight months later, that awkward squad has expanded to 70 MPs, all of whom plan to vote against the Government on Europe regardless of the Prime Minister’s renegotiation efforts. And, according to The Spectator’s count, there are 168 MPs yet to declare either way, including big names such as Boris Johnson and Michael Gove.
Cameron’s record on Europe has been a litany of concessions and reckless political gambles. First, in an effort to placate his Eurosceptic backbenchers, Cameron agreed to an EU referendum. It was a shrewd move as far as the impending election was concerned; Cameron was not shy in leveraging his referendum promise for maximum political advantage. However, far from silencing his backbenchers, the promise of a referendum has only made them louder and the divisions in the Conservative Party more visible.
Rather than confront this split head on, Cameron instead decided to defer a solution by agreeing to allow Ministers to campaign for an out vote. Cameron now presides over a party at war with itself, with ramifications that will extend beyond the conclusion of the referendum campaign.
And now, in what can only be described as a spectacular display of political hubris, Cameron has raised the stakes by promising to immediately deliver a reformed Europe. The most likely outcome of this strategy is that Cameron will have to present a watered-down version of his distinctly unambitious initial demands, which he himself will likely not even believe in, let alone his Eurosceptic opponents who never stood to be convinced anyway. With the stakes so high and the chance of success so low, it’s not clear why Cameron chose to pursue this course of action.
With this doomed-to-fail grasp at a “better deal for Britain”, Cameron jeopardises the main asset of the in campaign; the British public’s famously unwavering preference for the status quo. Instead of presenting a choice between the relative safety of the familiar and the fear of an uncertain future outside the EU, Cameron is now staking the in-vote on a deal that will inevitably be spun by the media and his opponents as a failure. The referendum was supposed to be a vote on Britain’s membership of the EU – now it is a vote on whether Cameron has been successful in petitioning 27 EU member states to agree to a deal that offers them little to no benefit; a vote that Cameron may not even win within his own party.
Needless to say, the British public’s long-standing commitment to political inertia could still triumph. However, Cameron’s European posturing has made it much more likely that it won’t.