The EU referendum is the defining political moment of a generation — more important than any general election. This will surely be shown by high turnout levels on the 23rd of June. Whilst it is quite right that the British electorate has been given a say over their country’s relationship with Europe, the political cost of this for the Conservative Party has been high — and will remain so for years to come.
Not only have families and friends been split into hostile camps, but the sometimes latent divide within the party has become ever apparent. Britain has always had a difficult relationship with Europe, often sitting at the edge and being the awkward friend we have become. This divide is ever present at home. After a vicious campaign, where will our party go?
One of the key questions is “where will Mr Cameron be?” Many make the case that he should go on the basis that he has campaigned so ardently to remain. They preach that, if we were to vote out, he couldn’t be representative of the party, let alone the country. I find this argument illuminates the priorities of some campaigners. As a party, we should be Conservatives first, and Eurosceptics or Europhiles second. Thus I would argue that, with the mandate Cameron has, no one is better placed to lead the Conservative Party.
It’s hard not to be critical of the media’s desire a to put a face to a campaign: Mr Cameron is Remain’s, and Mr Johnson is Leave’s. Naturally, the public like to personify campaigns, and doing so provides potentially useful exposure for politicians, but results in high profile Conservatives’ disunity. This disunity filters down the party’s ranks: once the media smells blood they are sure to pounce, and one can see this divide being used to sell papers well into the future.
In this respect, leaving the EU would be easier than staying. If we were to leave, this can only be met with a few grumbles, then hands to the pump to move forward. If we stay, however, we will be stuck in the perpetual dissidence of the Eurosceptics, as we have been since joining. For some, reform will not be enough. Can they bite their tongues and tow the party line? I am not so sure.
The only solution, perhaps, is to elect a new leader who is hostile outwardly, but an inward pragmatist in reality. What I expect, however, is a lurch to the right once Mr Cameron has departed. One can only imagine difficult times ahead if MPs’ European positions take precedence over our party’s common goal: defeating Corbyn’s Labour Party. The party conference in autumn should provide insight into what the future will hold, as well as whether rifts can be repaired.
The EU referendum was designed to win the general election: bringing home Eurosceptics who had wandered toward UKIP, and wooing Eurosceptic Labour supporters. It was perhaps even intended to bridge the European divide within our party. However, as we have seen after the Scottish referendum, consulting the public won’t end the debate, but will only serve to bring it to the front and centre. Difficult times lie ahead for the Conservative Party.
Stefan Schuller is the Campaigns Officer of the York Conservative and Unionist Association