Issue of Europe runs like ‘fault line through Conservative Party’

It was October 30, 1990, and Margaret Thatcher was on her feet at the despatch box of the United Kingdom‘s House of Commons.

Directly responding to calls from then-European Commission president Jacques Delors for greater central control in Europe, she roared, “No! No! No!”.

The UK prime minister’s trademark defiance came against the backdrop of increasing divisions within her Conservative Party over the thorny issue of Europe. Weeks later, the so-called “Iron Lady” of British politics would be forced from power after 11 dominant years.

Fast forward nearly three decades, and Prime Minister Theresa May is the embattled UK leader presiding over a Conservative Party rife with European divisions.

But, unlike Thatcher, May is currently trying to steer her nation out of the European Union (EU) itself.

For many observers, Brexit – the proposed withdrawal of the UK from the EU – is the culmination of decades of bitter disputes over Europe that have afflicted the Conservative Party. 

Indeed, the UK’s decision to leave the EU in a 2016 referendum may have signalled a direction of travel. But like Conservative premiers of the past, the current occupant of 10 Downing Street remains a hostage to European affairs.

From the moment two-time prime minister Winston Churchill (1940 – 1945 and 1951 – 1955) spoke passionately of a “United States of Europe” in 1946, Churchill’s Conservative Party has had an uneasy relationship with the continent.

Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, said that by the time Thatcher became premier in 1979, she “was already beginning to cool on Europe”.

“She had some big battles … over the UK’s claim that it was systematically disadvantaged by the way [the then-European Economic Community’s] finances worked,” he told Al Jazeera. “She won those battles, but at the cost of legitimising some very Eurosceptic rhetoric, which was only ramped up further by her opposition to the single currency.”

Thatcher had campaigned for the UK to remain in the European Economic Community (EEC) in the referendum of 1975 after it had joined two years earlier. But after years as prime minister, her patience with Europe was wearing thin.

In 1988, she delighted the Eurosceptic wing of her party when she declared in Bruges: “We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain, only to see them reimposed at a European level, with a European super-state exercising a new dominance from Brussels.”

Such rhetoric dismayed Conservative Europhiles. Two years later, Thatcher was propelled towards the exit door by the party’s pro-Europeans and Conservative members of parliament [MPs] who believed that she had now become an electoral liability.

The issue of Europe has run like a faultline through the Conservative Party for more than 40 years.

Rosa Prince, author

Next in the Conservative firing line came John Major. 

The mild-mannered prime minister spent seven years at the head of government only to lose to Tony Blair’s resurgent Labour Party in 1997. 

The intervening years, however, saw Major fight off Conservative rebels and engage in battle with them over the 1992 signing of the Maastricht Treaty, which led to closer European integration and the birth of the EU.

Major’s heavy defeat to Blair saw the Conservatives serve in opposition party for 13 years. 

But according to one former party politician, the period outside government saw “Eurosceptisim [in the Conservatives] gather pace”.

“At that stage, I don’t know whether most of the [Conservative] membership would have been for leaving [the EU],” Paul Goodman, a Conservative MP from 2001 to 2010, told Al Jazeera. “But more MPs were coming round, I think, to that point of view.”

Goodman, who voted to for Britain to leave the EU in the 2016 Brexit poll, said the years leading up to David Cameron’s Conservative premiership in 2010 and the referendum itself were “a journey, not a single event” for anti-Europeans in the Conservative Party. 

In a bold move to shoot the Eurosceptic fox in his party and to stem the rise of the radical right-wing and anti-EU United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), Cameron followed through on a 2015 electoral promise to hold an in-or-out-out EU referendum. 

Despite advocating a “remain” vote, Cameron’s plan backfired, and he resigned following the UK’s decision to leave.

May, who assumed power from Cameron in 2016, was a quiet “remainer” who saw her task as carrying out the will of the people. 

But after nearly three years at the helm, she today cuts a forlorn, if defiant, figure as she tries to grapple with the twin issues of EU withdrawal and Conservative Party infighting.

“The issue of Europe has run like a faultline through the Conservative Party for more than 40 years,” Rosa Prince, author of the biography, Theresa May: The Enigmatic Prime Minister, told Al Jazeera.

“Theresa May had hoped to succeed where other leaders had failed, calculating that she could keep the party together partly by bending over backwards to appease the Eurosceptics who had felt largely ignored by previous Conservative prime ministers.”

French President Emmanuel Macron welcomes British Prime Minister Theresa May as she arrives for a meeting to discuss Brexit at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France on April 9 [Philippe Wojazer/Reuters]

May’s EU withdrawal agreement is strongly opposed by hard Brexiteers in the party, who contend that her deal is not the clean-break Brexit for which the electorate had wished. The agreement has been voted down three times in the House of Commons, and the original EU departure deadline of March 29 has come and gone. 

May has even faced, and survived, a vote of no confidence by her own party. 

In March, however, she caved in to repeated demands for her to step down by announcing that she would leave office after her Brexit deal was passed by parliament. After her statement, British press headlines declared the downfall of yet another Conservative prime minister over Europe.

EU leaders recently agreed to delay Brexit until October 31. 

May is now seeking a compromise with the opposition Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, in order to end the Brexit impasse and reach a deal that parliament will endorse, while keeping her own negotiated deal on the table at the same time. 

As the Conservatives remain heavily split between Brexiteers and “remainers”, some high-profile Conservative politicians are fearing for the future of their party.

“The prime minister is working on the basis – as she has been for the better part of two months – that one more push will get her deal over the line,” said a pro-EU Conservative peer from the House of Lords, who spoke to Al Jazeera on the condition of anonymity.

“And the greater the fear on [the hard Brexiteer side] – namely of never getting out [of the EU] – the more likely it will be that they will accept her deal, suboptimal though they may consider it. It’s a grinding strategy that will destroy the Conservative party in the process.”

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