The triumph and tribulations of Conservative Euroscepticism

When, after five decades of skirmishes, Conservative Eurosceptics finally secured victory it was spectacular and momentous. Defeats had hitherto been more common than successes. Conservative Eurosceptics helped to keep the UK out of the Euro (although the Maastricht rebellion failed), created the European Conservatives and Reformists group in the European Parliament, and pushed David Cameron into holding an in-out referendum. But painstaking parliamentary scrutiny, multiple rebellions and extensive extra-parliamentary activity did not stop or reverse the incoming tide of European integration.

Brexit will dominate this Parliament – and Eurosceptic rebellion has not been consigned to history. Ministers and veteran Eurosceptics have concerns about the Article 50 escape route but the latter want a decisive break and will resist ‘Brexit-lite’.

Conservative Eurosceptic opinion had coalesced around the goals of renegotiation and a referendum. But differences over the extent of renegotiation and scope and timing of a referendum blunted their influence. Soft Euroscepticism was predominant: the UK should opt-out of European Monetary Union and Schengen but remain a member of a reformed EU. Hard Eurosceptics preferring withdrawal or fundamental renegotiation appeared a small minority: few joined Better Off Out and key figures like Bill Cash and John Redwood spoke in code of a new relationship based on trade.

Cameron’s unwillingness to press for the radical changes proposed by the Fresh Start Group and European Scrutiny Committee, and the debate’s switch from parliamentary to public arena burst the dam. 130 Conservative MPs, some with little track record of activity never mind rebellion on the EU issue, declared for Leave. Yet, with some Eurosceptics reluctant Remainers, Cameron claimed the support of most of his party.

The Leave vote will trigger rapid, fundamental change to the Conservative Party’s identity, ideology and leadership. It will not be smooth. Victory will not, for example, unite Conservative Eurosceptics. Differences over a post-Brexit relationship with the EU were not resolved before the Referendum and become more significant after it. What is an acceptable (and realistic) trade-off between single market access and the free movement of people has to be established. Brexit planning will frame the Conservative leadership contest – and there are doubts about Boris Johnson’s Eurosceptic conviction and mettle. Johnson implied that a Leave vote would secure better EU membership terms and favours a (temporary?) bespoke version of the Norwegian model.

Brexit will dominate this Parliament – and Eurosceptic rebellion has not been consigned to history. Ministers and veteran Eurosceptics have concerns about the Article 50 escape route but the latter want a decisive break and will resist ‘Brexit-lite’. With parliamentary sovereignty a defining issue for hard Eurosceptics and the ‘take back control’ message so potent in the Leave campaign, Eurosceptics will demand the enactment ofcommitments made by Vote Leave on disapplying the European Communities Act 1972 in specific areas (e.g. on immigration, rights and VAT), limiting the European Court of Justice’s jurisdiction and withholding payments to the EU before formal withdrawal.

When Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless defected in 2014, UKIP appeared an attractive alternative home for Conservative Eurosceptics. UKIP played a major part in bringing about and then winning the Referendum, pressuring Cameron and winning over voters the Conservatives could not reach. Factional change in their own party, tensions during the Referendum campaign and UKIP’s pitch for Labour voters make Farage’s party less appealing to Conservative Eurosceptics. But UKIP can stir up and take advantage of any concerns among socially conservative Eurosceptics about government wavering on Brexit.

Historically, most Conservative dissent on European integration has come from Eurosceptics. Large scale dissent from pro-European Conservative MPs is now a real possibility. When the party adopted a tougher stance on EMU under William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith, a handful of pro-European MPs defected, rebelled or worked with rival parties. The next generation of pro-Europeans took their time to take the torch and develop a new narrative, keeping their counsel and employing a discourse of EU reform not dissimilar to the leadership’s soft Euroscepticism. The Referendum gave them their voice and swollen numbers; narrow defeat gives them a bigger cause. With Euroscepticism enjoying majority support outside Parliament – notably among Conservative members and voters – but not within it, will pro-European Conservatives show the same desire and determination to put principle before party as Eurosceptics did?

The EU issue wrecked the last three Conservative premierships. Cameron’s policy was shaped by party management and marked by miscalculations. Lowering the salience of the issue and deferring difficult decisions allowed hard Eurosceptics to set the agenda, and building expectations about renegotiation that he would not or could not deliver (for which EU leaders share culpability) cost him his party and the Referendum. Nonetheless, an in-out referendum was the logical course of action, with the best (albeit limited) prospect of resolving the issue. The outcome means that the EU issue will frustrate and define the work of yet another Conservative Prime Minister.