Opinion: the Conservatives will live to regret the EU referendum

Europe has long been a problem for the Conservative Party and whichever way the EU referendum goes has pitfalls for the Prime Minister.

John Stephenson is a politics student at Lancaster University

With Miliband’s leadership facing criticism and a perceived lack of substance on major issues, it comes as no surprise that Labour are under pressure to produce the goods. Yet ironically, when it comes to the hot-potato that is a referendum on the EU, the party may be wise to criticise the move and let the opposition do the talking, as what the Conservatives see as a bold move is something they will probably live to regret.

If a referendum sees the public opt to remain in the EU, Cameron will be damned if does and damned if he doesn’t. Eurosceptic sentiment is rife among the Tories, with anti-integration think tanks such as the Bruges Group maintaining strong ties to the party. As a result, Cameron would likely face even greater pressure from backbenchers intent on seeking out a better “deal” for Britain, while also having to appease the few but very vocal Euro-enthusiasts.

Yet if the public opt-out, Cameron will be reticent to act for fear of being the man who took Britain out of Europe during a period of financial recovery and renewed confidence in the Eurozone.

John Major fell victim to similar circumstances, promising the party and electorate alike that Britain would remain “at the heart of Europe” yet struggling to keep party lines in order. Consequently, his tenure became a confused one, seeking opt-outs from key EU policy and postponing crucial decisions on monetary union and integration.

Result? He was seen as weak and lost the subsequent election. Yet Major is not alone in his failings in Europe. In fact, the European Union has been the thorn in the side of many politicians and has contributed to the demise or lost potential of several notable Conservative figures. Ted Heath took the UK into Europe and lost the following election. Margaret Thatcher had her leadership challenged by an ambitious Michael Heseltine, determined to expose her weaknesses in Europe. Kenneth Clarke lost leadership contests to both William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith, with his pro-European mind-set largely cited as a contributing factor.

It’s no surprise then that the internal conflicts over Europe within the party has been credited with losing the Conservatives years in office. According to Winston Churchill – himself a Tory – “those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it”. In order to avoid making the same mistakes as his predecessors, Cameron needs to heed this warning and stay guarded against making rash decision on the European Union. So he won’t promise a referendum on Europe.

But wait, he already has and to go back on such a promise could be disastrous. It’s a big political gamble and Cameron knows it, giving Miliband the perfect opportunity to use the situation to his advantage.

Labour has a decent track of playing their right cards with respect to Europe, the 1997 Manifesto deliberately containing little on the EU so as to avoid the wrath of the heavily Eurosceptic British media. However where it did speak on Europe it was with a positive tone, stressing the need for a constructive relationship with Brussels.

It’s important that Labour follows the same strategy this time around. Such an approach needn’t be empty rhetoric but should acknowledge that the situation in Europe is ever-changing. Political commentators frequently refer to “spill-over” in reference to further integration, but “spill-back” – a retreat away from further integration – is equally as commonplace, with policy going askew as heads of state compete against one another over national interest.

What’s more, while snatching voters back from the grasp of UKIP is obviously going to be a pressing issue for the big-three, it is likely not the insurmountable obstacle that many concerned Labour supporters have been led to believe.

Yes, Farage and co did well in recent locals and took votes from the mainstream parties in the elections to the European Parliament. However, these are likely to have been “protest votes” from an electorate, angry at the current state of party politics in the UK and wanting to “punish the lot of ‘em” by voting for a populist party. Such voting behaviour is relatively brief and is rarely carried over into national elections. After all, there is a reason UKIP have never won a seat in Parliament.

In pandering to these voters, the Tories are likely to fallout with one another further down the road and Labour ought to take note that the issue is a time bomb waiting to explode. Labour should concentrate on exposing the potential ramifications of Cameron’s referendum pledge, while offering their push for reform as a real alternative.

Previous referendums on Europe, such as the UK’s first in 1975, have done little to ‘solve’ British euroscepticism and much of the reason for the Norwegians opting out was because the voters knew little or nothing about the EU. This makes grim reading for David Cameron, whose promise comes amid financial instability in the Eurozone and a possibility that such a move will provide uncertainty for business leaders.

Labour need to act now and act fast in condemning his pledge, while assuring the public on the need for a careful approach to Europe. Within any luck, the Tories will start quarrelling among themselves and it will all end miserably for the Prime Minister, opening no. 10 to a Labour government in 2015.

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