Europe, Europe will tear them apart, again.
David Cameron must have been feeling rather satisfied on the night before his big speech on Europe, indeed one of the biggest speeches on Europe made by any Prime Minister since the in-out referendum in 1975.
Finally – he must have thought – the question that has dogged the Conservative Party for years, and ripped them apart in the past, will finally be put to bed.
And initially many Eurosceptics in the Party and the press would have been pleased by what they heard. However as the memory of the rhetoric died down and they started looking more closely at what Cameron had proposed, their agitation grew once more.
Europe – it’s an issue that can be relied on to have the Conservatives tearing chunks out of themselves. No one is claiming that other parties don’t suffer from their own totemic issues, but what’s fascinating about the Conservative in-fighting is that it’s raised its ugly head so early on in a Conservative led Government, potentially a new record for political rebellion.
Eurosceptic Conservatives would argue that should Great Britain be free from the shackles of the bureaucratic monstrosity of the EU, many of our problems, would be solved. ‘We would be sovereign once more!’ – they say. ‘Look at Norway and Switzerland!’ – they shout. And who wouldn’t want to benefit from the idyllic quality of life enjoyed by our fjord or mountain dwelling brethren.
However, the widely known but less oft-repeated fact is that Norway and Switzerland must still abide by the EU’s rulings and regulations to be able to trade with the Single Market, but these two countries have absolutely no say on how those rules are made – arguably a much worse situation than where the UK currently finds itself.
But does this really matter? The answer is it does – a lot. It is widely known that the Obama Administration would prefer to have the UK within the EU than without – and without Britain’s connection to the EU, the ‘Special Relationship’ would surely suffer. The EU is also Britain’s biggest trading partner, representing 52% of all goods and services traded, worth some £400bn a year. That trade and income is essential for UK jobs and the economy – issues that Director of Strategy at the polling firm Populus, Nick Rye noted on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme are much more important to voters than Europe, a topic which doesn’t even feature in their top 10 concerns.
If the history of political parties have shown us anything, it is that voters are turned off by in-fighting, factionalism and fractions. Cameron’s attempt to unite and strengthen the party, and kill the issue for the Conservatives once and for all was brave, but only stoked the Eurosceptic fires more. It seems that unlike previous Tory ructions on the EU, this one is of the PM’s own making and critics would argue is destined to make them just what Cameron was trying to avoid, appearing split and weak.