There’s no mention of the European Union on the formal agenda of the British Conservative Party’s annual conference, but it’s the topic that overshadows everything else.
There are more than 20 fringe meetings dealing with the forthcoming referendum on leaving the EU at the four-day gathering in Manchester, northwest England, that starts Sunday. The schedule offers both “Challenging the Supremacy of EU Law” and “Life After the European Union.”
The problem for Prime Minister David Cameron is that while most of these events are likely to feature loud applause for those who want to take Britain out of the EU, he’s proposing to argue for staying in. Having pacified Tory euro-skeptics in 2013 by promising the referendum, he now has to satisfy their demands for details of what exactly he’s seeking to gain in his negotiations with the other 27 members of the bloc. The pressure on the premier to deliver hasn’t gone away despite May’s unexpected election victory.
“He kicked it into the long grass,” Joe Twyman, the head of political research at polling organization YouGov Plc in London, said in a telephone interview. “But eventually, he’s got to go in and get his ball back and carry on playing. So he’s reluctantly heading towards the grass at the moment.”
Cameron’s official strategy is to win concessions from fellow EU leaders on the terms of Britain’s membership, and then hold a referendum by the end of 2017 on whether to remain in the EU or leave based on the outcome of those talks. He’s made it clear he wishes to push for Britain to stay in and has been reluctant to offer any precision about what changes he’s looking for.
The main opposition Labour Party swung behind continued EU membership this week after initial uncertainty about the stance of new leader Jeremy Corbyn. Some of the country’s biggest businesses have warned against an exit.
Cameron’s assurances haven’t been enough to pacify Tory lawmakers, who last month defeated an effort by Cameron to allow government officials to work in support of his position during the referendum campaign. He has also had to agree to let Conservative Party employees work for either side in the debate.
A report published Friday by the Open Europe think tank, which examined recent public statements by the Conservative Party’s 330 lawmakers, found that 69 would probably back an exit from the EU, with 203 likely to swing either way. Only 58 seem assured to vote for Britain to remain in the bloc.
The premier suffered a further blow Thursday when former Chancellor of the Exchequer Nigel Lawson said he’ll lead a campaign for Britain to leave, arguing that Cameron won’t succeed in securing the necessary reforms.
Lawson, the most senior Tory to join the For Britain group, said it needed to get its campaign under way. On Monday afternoon, the group will take part in a discussion on the conference fringe with Business for New Europe, which is campaigning to remain in the EU.
Those seeking to quit the bloc have been sidetracked, though, by a split between Leave.EU, which is closely linked to Nigel Farage’s U.K. Independence Party, and For Britain, staffed by many former Tory aides.
Farage rejected suggestions last week that he might put off undecided voters, and Leave.EU issued a statement Thursday accusing Lawson of being a similar risk, suggesting his record in Margaret Thatcher’s government in the 1980s might be offputting to many.
“It would be better if the euro-skeptic Tories just shut up,” Leave.EU said. “They are going to alienate the vast majority of people who will look at this campaign as a Tory stitch-up.”
While divisions on the “Leave” side could help the prime minister win the referendum, according to Twyman, he will face a challenge to satisfy Conservative supporters at the same time.
“Tory voters are pretty evenly split over whether to stay or leave,” he said. “But the people who wish to leave are far more enthusiastic about voting for that than the people who wish to stay. He has to position himself in such a way that he doesn’t alienate his own party, while winning the referendum.”