‘David Cameron is not the man to shoot the Conservative Eurosceptic dog’, Telegraph, 10 May 2016

You know the Tory Civil War is back on when the body-snatching starts again in earnest.  A few weeks ago, Winston Churchill’s grandson, Sir Nicholas Soames, the MP for Mid-Sussex, made it plain that he took a dim view of Leave campaigners trying posthumously to enlist the great man to their cause.  Now, however, the other side are up in arms because, in their view, the Prime Minister tried to do pretty much the same during his speech at the British museum on Monday.

But before we worry about how much more we, or indeed the Conservative Party, can take of this sort of stuff between now and June 23rd, it’s worth stepping back to ask who’s really to blame for the sorry state of affairs in which the Tories now find themselves.  No-one, of course, emerges spotless from such an excercise.  But David Cameron surely has more to answer for than most – and not because he’s at last being beastly to the Brexiteers but because he wasn’t beastly enough to them in the first place.

It was Sir Nicholas who recently declared in an interview with ConservativeHome that “If you have an Alsatian sitting in front of you, and it growls at you and bares its teeth, there are two ways of dealing with it. You can pat it on the head, in which case it’ll bite you, or you can kick it really hard in the balls, in which case it’ll run away”

Cameron chose right from the start to pat Conservative Eurosceptics on the head rather than kick them where it hurts.  Hence the trouble the Tories are in today. The Prime Minister hasn’t always crossed the street in order to avoid a fight with his own party.  But he is not by nature confrontational, preferring calibration and conciliation to outright conflict.  And nowhere has his tendency to buy himself time and to buy his opponents off been more evident than on Europe.

When, during the 2005 leadership contest, Liam Fox declared that he would pull the Conservatives out of the EPP group in the European Parliament, Cameron, who had previously given no indication whatsoever that he intended to do anything so self-defeating, almost immediately followed suit.

Once he had won, Cameron found that, despite some stalling, he couldn’t renege on the pledge, notwithstanding the time and effort it was bound to take in order to restore the damage it did to his relationship with Angela Merkel.

In any case, he came to appreciate that honouring that pledge, along with giving in to demands for a further promise of policy repatriation and a referendum lock on any further transfer of power to Brussels, would be a useful and apparently cheap way of proving his Conservative credentials to those worried about him taking the party too far into the centre ground.

However, the fact that Cameron failed to win the 2010 election and therefore had to do a deal with the Lib Dems – and the fact that the Eurozone seemed on the verge of collapse while UKIP began to threaten his MPs’ majorities – meant that when his right-wingers presented him with the bill for services rendered, they insisted on adding extra items.

Suddenly, they demanded , the Prime Minister would have to veto this and avoid opting back into that.  Oh, and that referendum – well, it would no longer be enough to keep it in reserve as a rocket of last resort; instead it had to be brought up to the front line and fired off immediately. And, in case he didn’t quite get the message, they would rustle up the odd rebellion just to remind him that their bite could be as bad as their bark.

Cameron’s Bloomberg speech, at which he finally gave the leavers what anyone with any sense knew they’d wanted all along, may have seemed to some like an act of leadership – but only in the sense apocryphally attributed to the French republican, Ledru-Rollin: “There go the people. I must follow them, for I am their leader.”

But even if, as the referendum result seems to hang in the balance, there are signs that he may finally have decided to fight fire with fire and show the Leave Alsatian who’s boss, there’s a catch.

For one thing, that Alsatian isn’t a puppy anymore, meaning that a few swift kicks aren’t going to be enough to do the job.  He’ll have to hurt it more than he might want to – and if he loses in June, it will be him, not the Alsatian, who’ll have to run away. For another, what is Cameron going to do with said canine if, in the end, Remain wins the day?

Talk of some sort of post-referendum “reckoning” – the proverbial “revenge reshuffle” – might excite some particularly zealous In campaigners.  But it seems improbable, largely because it would be so out of character: even if he could control it, Cameron simply isn’t the kind of guy to take a dog out back and shoot it.  And nor, one suspects, are any of his probable successors.


Originally published at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/05/10/david-cameron-is-not-the-man-to-shoot-the-conservative-euroscept/



About tpbale

I teach politics at Queen Mary University of London.
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