Conservative divisions over Europe: we told you so

The parties’ contrasting policy shifts over ‘Europe’ during the last 30 years – Labour moving from opposition to support, the Conservative going in the other direction – is well understood.

What is less well appreciated is that the issue is no longer the prime example of party division that it once was. There is still a division within Labour, but the Parliamentary Party has become more united in a ‘pro-European’ direction than it used to be. In contrast, whilst there is still division within Conservative ranks – one which will be displayed during Monday’s vote on a referendum – the nature of that split has altered beyond recognition.

The old division – between Conservative ‘pro-Europeans’ and ‘Eurosceptics’ – is now over. When Mark Stuart and I analyzed behaviour during the votes over the Lisbon ratification, we could identify fewer than half a dozen of the old pro-European Conservative MPs; even in the Lords this group, while impressive in terms of pedigree, was easily contained. The new battle lines for the Conservatives are between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ sceptics.  But as we noted then, writing in 2010: ‘these divisions are relatively easy to mask in Opposition…but will be much harder to deal with in Government’.

And so it has proved.  Since May 2010, there have already been 22 Conservative rebellions over the issue of Europe.  They make up 19% of all the Conservative backbench rebellions, but – more worryingly for the whips – they account for some 39% of all the dissenting votes cast against the Conservative whip.  That’s because they have been on average double the size of the average Conservative rebellion.  Even before Monday’s vote the issue has already triggered several rebellions of 20+ and 30+ Conservative MPs, including one of 37.  Between them, these 22 revolts have involved 64 Conservative MPs, exactly half from the 2010 intake.

More on this to follow, as Monday’s vote approaches.

Philip Cowley

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