In recent weeks the UK’s membership of the EU has been an issue of intense controversy for Britain’s ruling Conservative Party. Simon Usherwood argues that David Cameron’s assorted pronouncements on the subject are a reflection of his need to maintain some semblance of unity in his party, rather than any actual engagement with the issue. He notes that the sense among Conservative Eurosceptic backbenchers is that they have the advantage, that their course is right, and that their leader may submit to their pressure.

Last week might fairly be described as less-than-perfect for the Conservative party and their EU policy: a well-backed amendment to the Queen’s speech, sniping from both sides over the direction of travel and even the recently-reinstated Conservative MP Nadine Dorries – who one might have expected to be more circumspect – wondering aloud about running on a joint Conservative-UKIP ticket. All of this looks very much like a party in disarray. However, it is much more emblematic of a party undergoing a long-term shift in its position.

In the 1990s, when the European issue was last so prominent, the Conservatives were a more balanced party in terms of having a significant body of pro-EU members, many of whom had been personally involved in taking the UK into the EEC in 1973. The debate then was thus between pros and antis, the latter mobilised as much by their idealisation of Thatcher as any particular personal views on European integration. As time progressed, the pro-EU element became more and more marginalised, as the elder figures retired or died and local branches selected more and more sceptics to contest seats. This became particularly apparent at the 2010 general election, when there was a big turnover of MPs, and the entry into Parliament of significant numbers of backbenchers with both visceral views on European integration and a propensity to rebel against the whip. As a result, the Tories now find that their EU policy is being contested between antis and pragmatists, the latter holding the senior positions. Indeed, this is the root of the matter: David Cameron has no EU policy to speak of, but rather a series of pragmatic holding positions.

Credit: Rachel Clare Hobday (CC BY 2.0)

Credit: Rachel Clare Hobday (CC BY 2.0)

Understood as such, we can see how Cameron’s assorted pronouncements are a reflection of internal party dynamics and his need to maintain some semblance of unity, rather than any intrinsic feature of the integration process. Hence the dropping of the referendum he offered on Lisbon when in opposition; the convoluted Europe Act to cover treaty reforms that (at the time) seemed very unlikely; the farcical run-in to his January speech, which ultimately moved his position to saying he would press for a renegotiation. Even last week’s publication of a draft bill is nothing more than a bare minimum to not become completely out-flanked by the backbenches. In none of this has there been any debate about the nature of the Union, nor the impact of the Eurozone crisis on governance structures, nor even possible future avenues for a post-withdrawal relationship with the rest of the continent.

The underlying problem for Cameron is that a sizeable part of his parliamentary party will not be happy with anything less than withdrawal from the EU: there is no trust in any declaration of future intentions. Added to this over the previous year is the sense that the sceptics have the advantage, that their course is right and that their leader is biddable, which he is to an appreciable degree. Thus the sceptics will continue to push and Cameron will continue to make minimal concessions – even though his political instincts tell him that leaving the Union is not a good policy option.

In all of this, UKIP will continue to benefit by drawing in disaffected Conservatives, albeit voters rather than parliamentarians. Indeed, I would argue that UKIP is at the limits of what a party of protest can achieve, which might take the edge off their perceived challenge to the Tories in the coming two years before the general election. However, if there is one thing that we can learn from this, then it is that Europe truly is a defining issue for the Conservatives, for them to come back to it after such a long struggle during the 1990s. The problem is that they cannot agree on how it defines them and answers are unlikely to be forthcoming anytime soon.

This article was originally posted on our sister site, British Politics and Policy at LSE.

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Note:  This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics

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About the author

Simon Usherwood – University of Surrey
Dr Simon Usherwood is Senior Lecturer in Politics and Deputy Head of the School of Politics, University of Surrey. After study at the College of Europe and the LSE’s European Institute, his work has focused on euroscepticism, both in the UK and more widely across the EU. He is coordinator of the UACES Collaborative research Network on Euroscepticism and co-author of The European Union: A Very Short Introduction (OUP 2007).

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