The Conservative Difficulty

DavidWhy was there a Referendum in 2016?

Why, indeed.  At the time the Referendum was called, there was a Parliamentary majority for the proposition that that the UK should remain in he European Union.  It is worth looking at the level of Parliamentary support for the Remain and Leave options. The BBC published on 24th March 2016 details of the MP’s who had declared their stances by that date.


As of 16 May 2016 the number of Conservatives declaring an intention to support Vote Leave had risen by just 1 and there was also 1 addition to the list of those supporting Remain.   Therefore 433 for Remain and 147  for Leave  came out as 580 out of the 650 total of MPs leaving 70 who had not declared their position.  Even if those 70 had all voted for Leave there was no majority for Leave.

Had the decision to Remain or Leave been put to Parliament on a free vote, it is likely that the Remain position would have prevailed.

A Referendum was constitutionally  unnecessary:-

(1) The European Union is based on treaties and  English law on treaties is quite well established.  No referendum was constitutionally needed for the Executive to sign a treaty or to withdraw from one.  What was needed was the approval of Parliament for the proposed course of action.

(2) Based on the 75% parliamentary support for remaining in the EU, is was clear that, if asked, Parliament would not sanction withdrawal from the EU.

(3)  The problem the Cameron Government had at the time was that there was a sizeable minority of Conservative MPs, somewhere between 130-167,  who did wish the UK to leave the EU.

The referendum was not called by David Cameron in the national interest.  It was called to challenge UKIP and to placate the minority of Conservative Members of Parliament, in the mistaken hope that if the people voted to Remain, the Conservative MP rebels would accept the result.

(4) The fundamental mistakes David Cameron made were:-

(1) to concede a Referendum at all; and

(2) To allow Ministers  to chose to campaign on either side.   Ministers who wish to oppose the Government on an important issue are expected to hand in their seals of office.  With the exception of Ian Duncan Smith,  no Minister observed that convention.

(3)  To allow backbenchers also to campaign for a leave vote without resigning the Conservative whip.

(5)  At the time it seemed fairly certain that if the Vote Leave faction won the proposed referendum, David Cameron would have to resign.  But worse still,  it was also likely that there could be repercussions for the Cameron government even if the Referendum result were favourable.   A typical Eurosceptic Conservative Leave campaigner Andrew Bridgen MP told 5 Live’s Pienaar’s Politics:  “If there’s a small Remain vote… I think there probably would be 50 colleagues who’d be very dissatisfied with the prime minister’s performance,” the MP said.

In other words, the Conservative Brexiteers were likely to call for a leadership election even if the Referendum were won.

It is worth looking at the arguments going on within the Conservative Party at the time. One useful guide is the blog – Conservative Home a very pro-Brexit website where there were and still are very many posts from people on either side of the divide.  At the time,  this one was rather striking:-

It would be nice to know when Leave supporters are going to stop complaining about everything and trying to blackmail the leadership of their own party by threatening a needless and utterly disgraceful and disloyal leadership challenge.  And instead of trying to argue their case – apart from Gove and Raab (and to a lesser extent Leadsom), all I’ve seen so far is desperate mud-flinging (Patel, Mordaunt, Duncan-Smith and Johnson) and floundering on the key issue that will decide this referendum ie the economy. 

What is clear to me is what I always expected and now know for sure that there is a hard core of 40 or so out and out traitors in the party who have never accepted Cameron as leader and are doing everything to undermine a PM who has secured the democratic will of the people at a General Election. They claim this is about the fairness of the referendum campaign. That, and I will put this as politely as I can,  is hokum….

I am heartily sick of the way the party that I have supported for 40 years is being torn apart by these backstabbing hypocrites. Cameron must confront these people and crush them into the ground for a generation if our party is going to continue to be successful.”

So poor David Cameron had at least one loyal supporter with the right ideas.

On 29th May 2016, a senior Conservative MP and former Chief Whip, Andrew  Mitchell, posted a very interesting post on the same blog  “To say that relations are strained on Europe among Conservative MPs would be an understatement“.

After referring to the fact that the Maastricht Treaty was successfully taken through Parliament, he concluded with these observations:-

“What really matters is that after 23 June,  when our constituents have voted and the people have spoken, we all put this behind us and accept the result whichever way it goes. In the famous words of Margaret Thatcher: “there is no alternative”.

It is not necessary to look in the crystal ball to define the consequences for our Party forming a circular firing squad and continuing to obsess about the European Union thereafter. We did it in 1992, and it was 23 years before we next won an election.”

The electorate on this occasion will never forgive us if we behave as we did then. And they will be right.  Those of my Parliamentary colleagues who feel the temptation to do otherwise should go and lie down in a darkened room until the feeling passes.”

Well, now we can see the consequences.  Cameron lost the Referendum and had to resign.  His successor, Teresa May, now the Prime Minister,  has sought to proceed with Brexit, but she also sought to obtain a better majority by means of an unnecessary General Election and failed miserably.

The Vote Leave Campaign

The Vote Leave Campaign  was that selected by the Electoral Commission as the primary campaign organisation advocating a vote to leave.  It gets a hefty dollop of public money for campaign expenses.  There is no doubt that the odious Nigel Farrage was not best pleased that this committee was selected to be the lead campaign for a Leave vote – but that’s life.

The Vote Leave Campaign Committee


The Table above sets out the composition of the Campaign Committee.  A large majority were Conservative Brexiteers.  There were then a few from other parties and finally the spin doctors.  It will be seen that some of the Committee names are asterisked.  These are those who were designated as  “core members” who managed the campaign between full committee meetings.

Matthew Elliott and Dominic Cummings fell foul of the powerful Treasury Select Committee see the Committee Report entitled “The economic and financial costs and benefits of the UK’s EU membershipat para 236.

“In their treatment of this Committee, neither Mr Elliott nor Mr Cummings, as individuals, have fulfilled Vote Leave’s commitment, made in their successful application to the Electoral Commission, to“create a valuable legacy for the UK’s democratic process”.  Their conduct has been appalling.  Mr Elliott’s and Mr Cummings’s expressed view that powers should be restored to Parliament sits ill with that conduct.”

Conservatives For Britain

Standing behind the Vote Leave campaign was the Conservatives for Britain group. The President of this campaign was that sad old ex Chancellor under Margaret Thatcher,  Lord Lawson seconded by a bevy of similarly ancient  Tory peers (eg Lords Lamont, Flight and Tebbit).  These were really so much window dressing for a  number of prominent Conservative Brexiteer trouble makers (eg  Sir William (“Bill”) Cash MP, John Redwood MP and  Peter Bone MP).

The principal organisers were the Co-Chairs.  One  was the Conservative MP, Stephen Baker who obtained a respectable first degree in Aerospace Engineering and then an Oxford MSc in Computation. After 10 years as an Engineering Officer in the RAF, Flight Lieutenant Baker retired in 1999 and returned to civilian life ending up as the Chief Architect of  the “global financing and asset service platforms” of  the then 4th largest  US investment bank, Lehman Brothers.  Unfortunately for Baker,   Lehman Brothers collapsed in 2008 filing the largest ever bankruptcy the history of the United States and precipitating a global financial crisis.

So into Parliament Baker went in 2010, courtesy of the good people of the ultra safe seat of Wycombe.  In Parliament he was promptly appointed to  the Transport Select Committee in 2010 where he has devoted a lot of time to trouble-making in relation to the HS2 project (which does not pass through his constituency) .  He was elected to the  1922 Committee in 2012 and he is now rated as one of the top 10 most rebellious Conservative Members.  

 The other Co-Chair was David Campbell-Bannerman MEP, who was a  Conservative (1985-2004) then a member of UKIP  (2004-2012) and indeed its Deputy Leader from 2006 to 2010. As his name suggests, DCB is  a descendant of the Liberal Prime Minister, Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman who won a landslide victory against the Conservatives in 1906.

In effect, this was a pressure group to stiffen up the Vote Leave Campaign and also to collaborate with others – including UKIP.

Grassroots Out – GO 

This organisation claimed to bring together existing ‘leave’ campaigns and to get them to work as one in local areas.  It aimed to get UKIP speakers in on the act – sometimes appearing on the same platform with members of established parties.

UKIP – The UK Independence Party

UKIP is perhaps the party which stood to gain the most out of this Referendum but, in reality it has fallen into (hopefully terminal) decline.

UKIP History

UKIP originated with the Anti-Federalist League, a Eurosceptic political party established in 1991 by the historian Alan Sked.  In 1993, the group changed its name to the UK Independence Party, deliberately avoiding the term “British” so as to avoid confusion with the far right BNP.  In the 1994 election it did not do well, losing a lot of potential voters to the Referendum Party financed by Sir James Goldsmith.  UKIP had 194 candidates standing but only obtained 0.3% of the vote and only one candidate, Nigel Farage, got his deposit returned.  In 163 of the 165 seats where both a Referendum and a UKIP candidate stood, the Referendum Party did better than UKIP.   However, later in 1994, Sir James returned to meet his Maker and on earth his donations to the Referendum Party came to an end.  Many Referendum Party supporters joined UKIP.  Farage and others managed to dispose of Alan Sked shortly thereafter and in the 1999 European Parliament (“EP”)  Elections, proportional representation gave UKIP 3 seats in the European Parliament.  In the 2004 EP election UKIP got 16.1% of the vote and won 12 EP seats.

FarageIn 2006 Farage was elected leader of UKIP. He introduced a number of policies designed to appeal to Conservative unhappy with the liberal One Nation Tory policies of David Cameron.  A wealthy Conservative Party donor, John Stewart Wheeler was upset with Cameron over the Lisbon Treaty and he donated £100,000 to UKIP.  By 2012 UKIP was getting 10-12% of popular support and by 2014 UKIP had its first elected UK MP, Douglas Carswell who had defected from the Conservatives.

UKIP2Many refer to UKIP as the preferred party of Royston Vasey the fictional town in the hilarious League of Gentlemen TV series where visitors who are not “local people” come to a sticky end.   It is certainly the case that UKIP supporters were massively against EU  citizens coming to live and work in the UK.   UKIP membership had risen from 9,000 in 2002 to 47,000 in 2015.  Analysis of its membership and support in 2014 concluded that UKIP’s electoral base is” old, male, working class, white and less educated“.   57% of  UKIP supporters were over the age of 54, while only one in ten was under 35.

A gentleman posting on the Conservative Home blog raised a thoughtful point:-

“I’ve been intrigued during the past few months as to the motives of various members of the conflicting camps on the EU debate. If you leave the issues and the debates to one side, and just concentrate on the characters, a clear pattern emerges.

  1. Both Tory PMs, Major and Cameron, are in favour of remaining in the EU. 
  2.  William Hague who served as leader during the difficult years after 1997 is in favour of remaining. 
  3.  IDS and Michael Howard, leaders for a brief, yet unsuccessful periods, are Brexiteers. 
  4.  And virtually all of the unsuccessful candidates (except for Ken Clarke) for the leadership of the party since 1997, Redwood, Lilley, Michael Howard, David Davis and Liam Fox are Brexiteers. 
  5. There is a clear pattern here. The successful leaders are all in the Remain camp. The runners-up all appear to be Brexiteers.

 Is this is what really lies at the root of the venom and the viciousness that is tearing the party apart at present ?  Is this debate really about the EU ?”

Good questions.  Professor Tim Bale, Professor of Politics at Queen Mary University of London, wrote an article for the New Statesman of  4th September 2014.  It was triggered by Dogulas Carswell’s defection from the Conservatives to UKIP and it is a good read.  One passage at the end was rather striking:-

“Business in Britain is hard-headed rather than sentimental in its belief that, on balance and for the foreseeable future, EU membership is necessary. There are many free-marketeers in the parliamentary Conservative Party who, more or less regretfully, think the same way.

Those same MPs look at Ukip and at what it says about, say, welfare, immigration and education, and see in its words and actions not their kind of neoliberalism but, rather, angry nativism and aggrieved nostalgia. Most current and would-be Conservative MPs, even though they value tradition and believe in the common sense of ordinary people, still believe in a better tomorrow rather than a better yesterday. And the people whom they know in their heart of hearts the centre right needs to attract, at least in the long term, are not the autochthonous voters stranded in English seaside towns but the majority who work in the expanding sectors of the economy.”

Well Teresa May is now stuck with the consequences of  the Referendum and her survival chances (and indeed those of the Conservative Party) are now in issue.

Updated 1st August 2017