by Jack Brooks (research assistant) and Dr Sarah Lieberman (senior lecturer in politics and international relations)
If I said to you: “Sell this cake to a willing consumer” would you:
- Talk in detail about the advantages of the cake, emphasizing that the cost will pale into insignificance when you taste it.
- Talk about the advantages and disadvantages of the cake, taking a broadly balanced, if quite vague approach to the purchase at hand: urging the consumer to purchase the cake while admitting that it’s not very good value for money.
- Immediately scream back at me that you won’t sell anything less than 12 full cakes and only then if oven they were cooked in is thrown in for free. Threaten to punch me, threaten to punch yourself, and then try to persuade everyone that threatening to punch yourself was a misunderstanding. After a short cry, collect yourself and state that you are “very clear” about that fact that you may or may not punch yourself depending on how many, or how few, cakes and/or ovens you may or may not be able to sell.
In this analogy, I am the European Union, you are the Conservative Party, the cake is the Brexit referendum and the willing consumer is the British public. And yes, the Conservative Party who was trying so desperately to circle option ‘B’, slipped, and accidentally chose option ‘C’. OK, this is cake, but behind all the buzzwords, waffle and ‘politicians answers’, this is the gist of the mess that surrounds David Cameron’s party following the G7 Summit in Bavaria on Monday 8th June. Should we feel sorry for Cameron? Maybe. This article will argue that he never intended any of this to happen, indeed he never even intended to win the election…
Is it possible to accidentally pledge a referendum?
The British press have enthusiastically covered David Cameron’s referendum on EU membership since he pledged this intention in January 2013. It is tabloid (and broadsheet…) fodder, largely based around the assumption that the UK’s favourite, purple, people’s army – UKIP – are responsible for this political manoeuvring. Cameron is accused of trying to out-UKIP UKIP, by promising referenda, toughness on immigration and a raft of faintly euro-sceptic measures to win back the dinosaur Tories that have been won over by Farage’s nationalist rhetoric and devil-may-care sneer.
However, while “Cameron running scared of Farage!” by-lines might sell newspapers, it actually lacks a basis in fact. Indeed, taking a chronological view of events suggests that the referendum pledge is very unlikely to be connected to UKIP. First, let’s look at opinion polls.
The vertical red line on Figure 1 is placed in January 2013, the month in which David Cameron first pledged to hold a referendum on the EU if he was to win the next general election. At this point, UKIP had made significant gains since 2010, but had not yet breached 10% of the popular vote. Conservative strategists (and presumably David Cameron) can interpret opinion polls. The wide geographic spread of UKIP popularity, coupled with the charmingly archaic British electoral system, means that in January 2013, UKIP was absolutely no threat to anyone.
No. Cameron’s big, BIG headache in January 2013 is displayed at the top of the graph. At this point, the Labour party were batting a cool 41.5% of the popular vote, while the Tories were riding a dismal 31%. Even those not adept at reading opinion polls and analysing electoral systems will note that Cameron was standing at the precipice of a dramatic electoral defeat.
Is it possible to accidentally win an election?
Indeed, Figure 2 shows that these figures would result in Labour winning around twice as many seats as the Conservative party, a crushing embarrassment for an incumbent first-term Prime Minister. Cue David Cameron, in the Prime Minister’s Office, clutching file of opinion polls, his face displaying the uncomfortable mantra; “I am going to be known as the Prime Minister who never won an election”.
So, we argue that, looking down the barrel of huge electoral defeat, Cameron struck a Faustian pact… This moderate, pro-European pledged a referendum on Europe (a kryptonite subject for the Conservative party), in an attempt to win over some of the almost 10% of the population dedicated to UKIP. And indeed, why not? At that point, there appeared to be no way that he could win the next election: with 200 seats down on Labour, the best he could hope for was a dignified election loss, and the opportunity to claw back some seats for his party by using a pledge that he would never have to fulfil.
Well, wasn’t he wrong! 2015 saw the Labour leader weaker than expected, the Murdoch Empire backing Cameron, the Lib Dems flat lining and the SNP battering Scottish Labour. The result: the Tories were able to form a majorit. A month after this seemingly unpredicted electoral victory, the Faustian pact did what Faustian pacts do best: it came back to bite Cameron firmly on the rump.
The trouble with Tories
The EU is a very dangerous topic for the Conservatives, as it squats on a major fault-line that runs through the party: traditionalist versus pragmatist. In the traditionalist corner sit the old guard: Philip Hammond, Ian Duncan Smith, Priti Patel and the infamous Boris Johnson. And in the pragmatist corner sit the veterans of the Tory Reform Group: Ken Clark, David Cameron himself  and, although shy about it, George Osborne. The Economist identifies five groups of Tories; Europhiles, Diplomats, Dealers, Globalists and Hikers  spanning from let’s keep the union as it is, to let’s leave right now. The Pragmatists (including the Economist’s Europhiles, Diplomats and some Dealers) are in favour of membership; the Traditionalists (comprising the Economist’s Globalists, Hikers and some Dealers) are in favour of pursuing trade and political links further afield.
The Eurosceptic Tory faction is thus not a fringe group: several we-don’t-want-to-be-a-part-of-your-Union-ers sit in the Cabinet. Which would be fine if Europe was a single issue they could sweep under the carpet, but unfortunately, it has baggage. The issue of Europe brings with it other issues that highlight the party split. Let’s look at three big ones:
- Britain’s place in the world;
- What it means to be “British”;
- The realisation that this slightly damp mid-Atlantic rock might change. And nobody likes change.
Britain’s place in the world
Britain used to be great, didn’t it? We had an empire, massive boats with awesome cannons, artefacts nicked from the Greeks. Fond memories. But they are just memories. The sun does now set on the British Empire, it happens once a day, it is called night-time. We are no longer the global hegemon, or even one of a multi-polar power system comprising the USA, Russia and Britain. Those days are gone, and the Conservative pragmatists realise that. In David Cameron’s 2013 speech on his plans for the EU referendum he spoke of the “Challenges […] from the surging economies of the east and south” in a context of admiration for the EU, a definite nod to his belief that the European nations cannot compete independently.
Fascinatingly, the Eurosceptic ex-Conservative MP Paul Goodman also mentions the “growth of Asia, South America and […] Africa” but in a negative context, suggesting that the EU holds back “British firms and families”. The EU currently has Free Trade Agreements with the Gulf Co-operation Council, the entirety of the South East Asian ASEAN trade bloc, and a raft of individual countries including India. The EU also has an Association Agreement with the South American Mercosur trade bloc, is negotiating trade deals with the USA and re-negotiating an old trade deal with China. If Mr Goodman believes the mighty God-graced United Kingdom on its own could do better than that, then good on him. He’s got ambition. But his Prime Minister and the other, more pragmatic, half of his party certainly think otherwise.
What it means to be “British”
Eurosceptic Work and Pensions Secretary, Ian Duncan Smith is very clear about what constitutes Britishness, and it doesn’t include being European… Commenting on immigration, IDS stated that EU nationals are “literally changing communities” not just metaphorically, but LITERALLY! Is this just base xenophobia? Probably. Why else would his priorities differ from his contemporaries in the pragmatic corner, who see immigrants waving dollar signs rather than threatening British culture?
Chancellor George Osborne has become the spokesman for British economic growth. Indeed, the Conservative Party has branded itself as the party of the economy: how many times have we heard the “long-term economic plan” catchphrase chirped this most recent election alone? Osborne is a very bright man, he knows EU migration is very good for the economy, gaining us as much as £20 billion from 2000-2011. He also knows that seeing growth in the economy is considered the “most important issue” by the British public, and he is therefore pro-Cameron in terms of the EU.
So again we see the traditionalist V.s pragmatist split: being anti-EU/anti-immigration and pro-economic growth is surely a contradiction, given that immigration is helpful for economic growth. So there is a choice of priorities at hand, and the fact that the ‘traditional’ Tories pick one and the ‘pragmatic’ Tories pick the other shows a substantial ideological separation. So, to the question ‘what does it mean to be British?’ the ‘traditionalists’ are very clear; something about tea, tweed and a stiff upper lip, and the pragmatists, true to name, don’t care what it means to be British as long as it’s making us money.
Cameron claims to be Conservative-reformist. Which is by definition oxymoronic. Need we say more.
And so, what happened at the G7 in Bavaria? The British Prime Minister was forced to pull a sharp U-turn, not on international economic business, but over his own party policy. Having stated that he would most definitely sack any Ministers not toeing the party line over the UK’s hypothetical position in a (not yet) renegotiated European Union, he completed a remarkably swift volte-face, claiming that the press had ‘over-interpreted’ his statement, and that no Ministers would be sacked for taking an alternative view.
Should we feel sorry for David Cameron? Perhaps. The job of Prime Minister is a difficult one. However, this is a problem of his own making. The referendum that he never intended is driving a wedge through his party in a way he knew it would. On Sunday, the Traditionalists reared their ugly heads and gave Cameron a near-impossible ultimatum over his EU renegotiation plans. Given that the demands made are unattainable, meaning that 50-100 Conservative MP’s would oppose his position, Cameron made a desperate plea to at least keep his government onside. But that battle was lost before it had begun, a free vote for Ministers on the referendum is looking almost inevitable. The canary in the coal mine has just died and chaos is ensuing. The upcoming referendum will feature Ministers fighting Ministers, MP’s fighting the PM, and the Conservative Party fighting the Conservative Party. It promises to be quite a show. The lefties among us will be sure to bring popcorn.
We have seen recent “political earthquakes”, to use a much laboured metaphor, from the SNP and UKIP but we have not seen the last. The next will hit the Conservative fault line, and looks set to crack it in two. We predict two alternatives by the end of 2017: 1. David Cameron resigns (enter Boris?); 2. the Traditionalists leave the party entirely (either forced or by choice – that is a prediction too far). In either scenario, the party is consigned to the political quagmire for the next three election cycles, as Labour moves right to the centre and picks up the pieces.
Sorry Cameron, it appears you just won the election.