One thing’s certain about 2016. The struggle within the Labour Party will continue, but divisions among the Tories will become high profile.
The reason is simple. It became clear after the European Union (EU) summit held last December that David Cameron intends to press ahead with an in-out referendum—probably in June. Cameron committed himself to a referendum on EU membership because his party is deeply divided over the issue.
Actually, that’s not exactly true. Strong Tory supporters of the European project are rare and usually quite old these days. Euroscepticism now dominates the party, driven by a combination of conviction and fear of Ukip’s inroads into the Tory base.
The argument is really between moderate and extreme Eurosceptics. They disagree over whether British capitalism’s interests are best served by leaving the EU or using the threat of “Brexit” to extract a better deal.
The pro-Brexit faction is powerful among Tory backbenchers and represented in the cabinet. Ministers who are dead certs to support Britain leaving include Iain Duncan Smith and Chris Grayling.
Boris Johnson and home secretary Theresa May, who both want to succeed Cameron, are sympathetic but manoeuvring to maximise their personal advantage.
Cameron promised to step down before the next election in 2020, so the struggle for the Tory leadership has begun.
Former Labour prime minister Harold Wilson faced similarly deep divisions in his party over Europe in the
mid-1970s. Cameron has adopted his solution—to promise a referendum but to seek renegotiations that will allow him to campaign for Britain to stay in the EU.
These negotiations, which got serious at last month’s Brussels summit, aren’t entirely cosmetic. Two issues matter to the Tories. First, despite Britain staying out of the single currency, the City of London dominates euro trading.
From time to time, politicians and central bankers in France and Germany say they will put a stop to this.
Cameron and his anointed successor George Osborne want to ensure that the City won’t lose its advantage in currency trading if the eurozone becomes more integrated.
Secondly, there is the issue of immigration that Ukip has exploited so successfully. It’s much harder for Cameron to deliver something meaningful on this. Germany and the eastern European states, which are otherwise quite eurosceptical, are strongly committed to free movement of labour within the EU.
German chancellor Angela Merkel and other European leaders are preoccupied with the refugee and eurozone crises. But precisely because the EU is so ramshackle these days, they can’t afford Brexit.
Cameron claimed success after the December summit. European leaders gave him enough signals that they’d help construct a package that will allow him to campaign for Britain to stay in.
This has undoubtedly been Cameron and Osborne’s aim from the start.
In what look like preparations for the referendum battle, former Tory leaders John Major and the traditionally eurosceptic William Hague have started making the pro-EU case.
They are undoubtedly expressing the position of the bulk of big business in Britain. Since the 1980s the British economy has been rebuilt as a platform for multinational corporations operating in the EU.
But in 1975 big business made sure that the Yes campaign had more than ten times the money of its rivals.
This time both firms and business organisations, such as the CBI, have been much more cautious about coming out in support of the “Remain” camp.
Maybe the plan is to come in late and strong—as in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum—and try to panic voters away from Brexit. But the polls on the EU are much closer than they were over Scottish independence until quite late in the day
In any case, it’s clear how the bulk of the ruling class is lining up. The left needs to decide quickly where it stands.