Cameron and the Europe question: Could it have ended any other way?

When David Cameron was elected leader of the Conservatives in December 2005 many saw him as the figure that could finally move the party forward and, crucially, away from the divisions over Europe that had blighted it in opposition since 1997. Here was a modern, liberal, Conservative politician that could appeal to the electorate and return the party to government at the next election. To many of those that backed him in the leadership election, he was also no Ken Clarke style Europhile but a moderate or ‘soft’ Eurosceptic who believed European integration had reached its limits and that some powers should be returned to full UK control. Many thought, optimistically in hindsight, that this would be the first Conservative leader returned to No.10 not to be consumed and defeated over the question of the UK’s relationship with the European Union.

We now know that this has turned out not to be the case.

The greatest irony of all is, of course, the way Cameron might have ultimately succeeded in stopping the Conservatives from ‘banging on about Europe’, given his fateful decision to enable the UK vote to leave the European Union altogether.

David Cameron joins the previous Conservatives to make it to No 10, Margaret Thatcher and John Major, in having Europe as one of the reasons for hastening their departure from office. In the case of Cameron and the lost Remain/Leave EU Referendum, it was the defining reason. However these events beg two important questions we need to consider when evaluating Cameron and Europe : was it always going to end like this and could he have avoided a fatal confrontation with his party over this issue?

This is not the place for in-depth analysis but some initial reflections are considered. There were early signs that the European issue would pose problems for Cameron’s leadership. To win the support for his leadership from influential Eurosceptic MPs Cameron had to make a number of concessions, including a commitment to withdraw Conservative MEPs from the European Peoples’ Party-European Democrats’ grouping in the European Parliament. He also pledged to return full control over social and employment policy to the UK government. Later he made significant promises on restricting the influence of the Charter of Fundamental Rights and agreed to ghold a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. The mood music was thereby established by Eurosceptics and substantial reform of the UK-EU relationship expected. Cameron would make it happen and they would not forget.

Timing- in history, politics and stand-up comedy- is everything. For Cameron and Europe the failure to win the 2010 election outright and the subsequent need to form a coalition government dependent on the support of pro-European Liberal Democrats MPs largely stymied Tory plans for European reform. Rightly or wrongly, many Eurosceptic Conservative MPs blamed Cameron both for the failure to win in 2010 election and for being too quick to drop their reform agenda in the face of Liberal Democrat opposition. Expectations had been raised in opposition and the reality of being in coalition left many Eurosceptic Conservative MPs, members and voters angry and disappointed. This, as much as the rise of UKIP during the coalition years, explains the source of the pressure that eventually led Cameron to make the fateful decision in January 2013 to concede the promise an in/out referendum in the event of his re-election as Prime Minister in 2015. Had Cameron won the 2010 election and implemented some of the Eurosceptic reform agenda developed in opposition, much of the pressure for such a plebiscite might have been defused.

Could David Cameron have confronted his party in opposition and resolved the European issue? Could he have resisted the pressure to commit to an in/out referendum? These questions need further consideration but the likely answer is no, not without a potentially disastrous display of party disunity and in fighting that could have seen Cameron removed as party leader. In many ways, from the Prime Minister’s perspective, it is understandable why he pursued the course of action he took. Cameron’s formative experiences as a Conservative researcher, special advisor and then MP were dominated by periods of internal party conflict over the question of European integration. The prospect of revisiting this issue was not a priority given the party had restored some confidence in the public that the Conservatives could be trusted with the responsibility of government again. In the end it was Cameron’s failure to convince voters, and not just the Conservative Party, of the wisdom of his vision for Europe that ultimately saw his political career end prematurely.

The greatest irony of all is, of course, the way Cameron might have ultimately succeeded in stopping the Conservatives from ‘banging on about Europe’, given his fateful decision to enable the UK vote to leave the European Union altogether.