October 24, 2011 9:26 pm

British PM pursues risky strategy on rebellion

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David Cameron had been intending to spend Monday preparing for a long-planned trip to Japan and New Zealand. Instead the prime minister was holed up in his House of Commons office entreating a long line of rebellious Conservatives not to defy him on Europe.

His decision to impose a three-line whip over a non-binding vote on a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union provoked fury among the rebels. But it revealed Mr Cameron’s determination to face down – once and for all – the hardline eurosceptics in his party.

“It is a seminal moment,” said one progressive Tory MP. “Cameron always knew his modernisation project would not be complete until he talked about the Europe question, in the same way that Blair knew his project for Labour would not be complete until the party loved Peter Mandelson. Europe is the litmus test of whether the party has modernised or not and that means taking on the base of the party on the backbenches.”

It was a risky strategy and many advised against it. Iain Duncan Smith, the right-leaning work and pensions secretary, and Graham Brady, who chairs the influential 1922 backbench committee, urged the prime minister to give Tories a free vote on the motion. One senior backbencher intending to defy the whip said that all Mr Cameron had achieved was to “alienate the rump of the party” and give shape to an incoherent rebellion.

Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne, his chancellor and key tactician, have remained resolute in the face of dissent from as much as a quarter of the backbench.

Meeting with ministerial aides on Monday – up to half a dozen were threatening to resign over the referendum motion – Mr Cameron acknowledged that the vote was a lightning rod for discontent.

But he made clear that a parliamentary vote in favour of a referendum would embolden the eurosceptics at the worst possible moment for his continental neighbours. It is the “wrong proposition at the wrong time”, he told the aides.

Mr Cameron had a further reason to crack down on the rebellion: a need to silence his benches’ visceral dislike of Europe before it begins to tarnish his authority.

“If there was a free vote and this comes back it will build up a head of steam,” said one ministerial aide. “Cameron is probably as strong as he is ever going to be and if he could draw poison from it today and have the rebellion and ugly debate now, with a bit of luck he can stop it coming back before the election.”

Mr Cameron, who describes himself as a “very practical eurosceptic”, is fearful that the party’s intense focus on Europe merely exposes it as out of touch with voters more worried about job losses and rising fuel bills.

At the local party level, however, the EU remains high on the agenda, with 72 per cent of party members urging MPs to vote for a referendum in a ConservativeHome poll, published on Monday.

The era of John Major left the parliamentary party deeply scarred after months of infighting over the Maastricht treaty. Monday’s one-off, non-binding vote, which confronted a party united in its dislike for Europe, was more symbolic.

But it remained potentially toxic. Mr Cameron was set to preside over the largest backbench rebellion over Europe since 1993, when 41 rebels defied Mr Major over Maastricht.

Even if Mr Cameron succeeded in persuading some of his rebellious MPs to back the government, the longer-term ramifications of the standoff threaten to dog his premiership.

“If you try to face them down and still lots of MPs rebel, you build up resentment for months to come,” said Philip Cowley, professor of parliamentary government at Nottingham university.

“If 50, 60 or 70 MPs tell the whips where to go, you have three-and-a-half years left of a parliamentary term during which a significant number of your MPs are disconnected from the leadership,” said Prof Cowley. “It is the damage it does getting it through.”

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