Dark Days for the Tories: The implications of the EU referendum for domestic party politics

The referendum debate has revealed deep fissures in the Conservative Party. Sean Swan considers the different scenarios that might follow the vote, and writes that – in or out – it does not seem likely that the losing side will simply accept the referendum result as the end of the matter.

Credit: Andrew Parsons CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 For Editorial use only,not for sale, not for marketing or advertising campaigns.

Credit: Andrew Parsons CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Most analysis of the referendum has, understandably, focused on the economic and social consequences of an out vote. However, the implications for domestic party politics, especially for the Tories, might also be dramatic. The issues raised by the referendum are no more likely to be settled by the result that was the case in the 2014 Scottish Indyref.

Should there be an ‘out’ victory, there would be tremendous, and probably irresistible, pressure on Cameron to do what Salmond did when he lost a referendum – resign as both PM and party leader. This, in and of itself, need not lead to a general election anymore that did Blair’s resignation and his succession by Brown. In one sense, a general election resulting from a change of PM within the same party is even less likely to lead to a general election now than then because of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act.

But – and it is a major but – Brown’s succeeding Blair was a foregone conclusion. He was Blair’s natural and anointed successor (no matter how reluctant that anointing may have been). The situation in the Tories following a Brexit victory would be radically different. The leadership contest would be as bitter and divisive as the referendum campaign itself. A straw in the wind is the proposed strategy (‘Maastricht in reverse’) on the part of the government, or rather the pro EU part of it, to minimise the significance of any ‘Out’ victory by trying to remain in the Single Market, delaying the repeal of legislation derived from EU directives and even seeking to hold a second referendum. And all of this to be achieved by relying on Opposition support to overcome the resistance of anti-EU Conservative MPs. Nothing could be better designed to split the Conservative party.

The full fruits of the 1974 EEC Referendum were not felt until 1981 and the formation of the SDP and eventual SDP/Liberal Alliance. Just as today, the referendum on membership of Europe had mainly been called due to the divisions within the government party (then Labour) on the question of Europe. Many of those on the right of the Labour party who were pro-Europe and campaigned as such, found that they had more in common with members of the Liberal party alongside whom they shared platforms during that referendum than with their own Labour colleagues. It seems clear today that some Conservatives have more in common with UKIP than with the Cameronites within their own party. A split in the Conservative party at this point might be no more than the formal recognition of the fact that the Conservative party is already de facto two parties. Whether the anti-EU Tories would join UKIP or form some new political party would remain to be seen.

Even an ‘in’ vote holds dangers for Cameron. If the polls remain tight, and particularly if ‘out’ is in the lead, the temptation will be to produce some version of ‘the vow’ that was made in the final days of the Scottish Independence referendum. The vow promised that if Scotland voted to stay in, the Scottish Parliament would be given significant new powers. This tactic effectively changed the meaning of the referendum question from ‘independence or the status quo’, to ‘independence or devomax’. Much of the political mobilisation behind the rise of the SNP since the 2014 referendum was based on holding London to the Vow – and, of course, on arguing for a maximalist interpretation of devomax (for example here). Cameron has less room to maneuver now than in 2014, less room to change the nature of the referendum question. In the first place, he played the renegotiation card before the referendum and cannot credibly play it again, and in the second place, significant changes to the nature of the EU – unlike changes to the governing of Scotland – are not within his gift.

But desperation may lead to promises being made which are ultimately unkeepable. It is around the (maximum) fulfillment of any such promises that UKIP and Eurosceptic Tories will rally. If such promises are not met, there may well be calls for a second referendum. In short, we may well see some version of an ‘out’ ‘Maastricht in Reverse’ strategy. In either case, in or out, it does not seem likely that the losing side will simply accept the referendum result as the end of the matter – and no party is as divided on this question as are the Tories.

A shake out of the party system is probably inevitable now anyway because, for better or for worse, as Simon Reich correctly argues, there is a new political divide in politics today – and the current party system fails to recognise or represent it.

This post also appeared on the PSA Insight blog and is reposted with the author’s permission. It represents the views of the author and not those of Democratic Audit or the LSE. Please read our comments policy before posting.

Sean Swan is a Lecturer in Political Science at Gonzaga University, Washington State, in the USA. He is the author of Official Irish Republicanism, 1962 to 1972.

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