You’d need a heart of stone not to relish the Tory in-fighting as the referendum looms. It couldn’t happen to better people. It’s half a century since this jagged fissure over Europe reached the Conservative core. Now it colours attitudes on everything: the help-the-rich Budget, neglect of steel, even the murky monetary misdemeanours of Dodgy Dave.
The Conservatives are an old party with a ruthless power instinct, apparently unconcerned about ideas. Everything comes second to winning the power to enrich their class. A National Living Wage? Why not, if people spend it and boost profits? The important thing is to govern so that the right people are taking decisions. Why else did papa send one to Eton? Thus in normal times ideology is out and effortless superiority is in. They can sit back and enjoy Liberal splits over Home Rule (1880s), Ramsay MacDonald’s defection (1930s), the SDP (1980s), radiating calm while depicting opponents as a rabble.
But periodically free trade disputes shiver the entire structure. In the 1840s Disraeli rallied Tories against Robert Peel’s Corn Laws repeal, a protectionist triumph. Sixty years later the Tories themselves were free traders, but under Balfour, still split over ‘imperial preference’ (the new protectionism). In the 1930s Stanley Baldwin fought Tory press barons wanting ‘Empire Free Trade’. From the 1960s projected EEC entry destabilised Conservatives again. Edward Heath presented it as a free trade move, taking Britain in and campaigning to remain in the 1975 referendum. But party opinion chilled. The EU seemed an obstacle to Britain’s world trade – a barrier to free markets. By the 1980s, his successor Thatcher (a 1970s Yes campaigner) was Euro-hostile. Her followers wrecked John Major’s 1990s government.
By the 21st century Euro-scepticism had won. Dodgy Dave could never have become party leader as a Europhile: nobody could. Even as Prime Minister he has always been on the defensive over Europe, untrusted by his party. By 2013 he could only staunch Euro-hostility by promising a referendum on membership. He glibly thought he could present a few minor renegotiations as a reformed EU; worth staying in. Few Tories were deceived. Now we hear the old song, a fracture over the lethal free trade issue.
There are at most 100,000 Tories. Yet to appease this ageing sect of racists and Rotary Club members, Cameron plunged 65 million people into a referendum. What a falling off since Balfour declared he’d rather take the advice of his valet than listen to the Tory conference! But Conservatism was then a mass movement. Now its Prime Minister can’t face down his small, shrinking party. Is it over for the Tories?
That depends on a referendum that could go either way. If the UK votes Remain they will pay a high price. The constant attempts to rig the vote, the £9m leaflet to every household (before spending limits kick in) and bitter Cabinet exchanges have inflamed differences. When Ian Duncan Smith, scapegoated for benefit cuts, angrily resigned, Europe’s power to inflame pre-existing differences was evident. Cameron may assume unity will break out after the vote but Tory Euro-rebels will cry foul and demand another one. Plenty would like to give him the same treatment Thatcher had in 1990.
If the UK votes Leave, Cameron – the leading Remain campaigner – cannot remain Prime Minister. In the contest to succeed him the key question would be ‘which side were you on in the referendum?’. The link between Free Trade, the EU and economic policy would be exposed, as triumphant Euro-sceptics lay into the National Minimum Wage, pensions and holidays. Vote Leave is the prelude to rolling back half a century of employment rights progress and introducing an Americanised labour market. UKIP (already half the Tory size) will cheer them on. It would be all-out class war.
Labour isn’t like a football team that accepts elimination from the Cup to concentrate on the League. It must get stuck into Remain and push every voter to choose. This referendum will shape Britain’s future. Then, if a weakened Cameron survives, he faces a revived Labour that can emerge – after good Wales, Scotland and London results – as the country’s strongest political force. If he falls, Labour can force an early election while the Tories disintegrate, Major-style.