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Pro European Conservatives

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With the referendum drawing ever closer, pro-Europeans within the Conservative Party will be forced to take a stance on the matter. It is well documented how the Conservatives in the past have acted in a Eurosceptic manner towards the Community. However, it should be remembered that in the past pro-European Conservatives have also been willing to take a stance on the matter and have taken steps to work with the Community. If the referendum results in Britain remaining in the EU, the Conservatives will have to continue working with other Member States.

The Pro-Euro Conservative Party (PECP) was created in 1999 led by Brendon Donnelly and John Stevens both of whom were Conservative MEPs. The PECP’s official aim was for the UK to join the Euro. The PECP hoped to put pro-European pressure on the Conservative party like the Eurosceptics had on John Major and force the Conservative Party into replacing William Hague with pro-European Ken Clarke. When this initially failed, the PECP had hoped to get prominent figures like Michael Heseltine and Chris Patten to join the PECP in conjunction with Liberal MPs, which would cause a SDP like breakaway from the Conservative Party. The PECP was short lived and was disbanded in 2001. Many of its members merged with the Liberal Party while others went on to join the Tory Reform Group.   

Europe is an issue that has often proved fractious for the Conservative Party. This is a fundamental reason for why the PECP had failed to gain Geoffory Howe’s endorsement despite Howe being a central figure for the Britain in Europe Campaign. Many prominent Conservative figures feared that, if the PECP succeeded, it would shatter the party like the Labour Party had been with the SDP. Consequently, the Party remained supportive of Hague in 1999 and did not replace him with Ken Clarke.

The SDP was created in 1981 Roy Jenkins, Bill Rodgers, Shirley Williams, and David Owen broke away from the Labour Party. This had occurred as they felt the Labour Party was moving too far left. They felt that an alternative party was needed that would have a pro-European outlook. The SDP breakaway devastated the Labour Party as many other MP defected. Moreover, the SDP had split the Labour vote in elections which allowed for the Conservatives to win three consecutive general elections.

Historically the leadership of the Conservatives has struggled to form a coherent policy on Europe as they have often attempted to appease both wings of the party. The Single European Act and the Maastricht Treaty did for Thatcher and, Major (respectively) and the EU referendum now looks to be doing for Cameron. However, because a referendum leaves the decision with the British public, in theory it can be an effective tool for party management.

With Cameron’s suspension of collective responsibility for Cabinet members, the Conservatives have become increasingly divided on the issue, and over recent days the opinion polls have suggested that the remain  lead has shrunk to 7.  Iain Duncan Smith’s resignation over the Budget has exacerbated the matter. In his resignation letter, Smith attacked both Cameron and Osborne who are both advocates for remaining part of the Community. Can Smith’s resignation be seen as causing dissatisfaction and division over EU membership? It certainly undermines Cameron’s position as the leader of the Conservative Party and again highlights splits within the party.

From 1999-2001, the Conservative Eurospecitics were not a united group, as Conservatives were sceptical on varying issues ranging from national to constitutional matters related to the Community. In 2016, Conservative Eurosceptics still continue. Moreover, as discussed by David Thackeray, this referendum is more complex than in 1975. Britain has been a member of the Community, and is tied to it by forty-one years of legislation. Additionally, emerging markets like China and India are seen as the future for the UK. This all makes the matter of party management over the issue of Europe increasingly difficult.

Ensuring that the Conservative Party remains intact is a crucial role that any the leader of the party plays. However, the shadow of the SDP still looms large as an example of how Europe can divide a party. 

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.

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