Brexit Rifts Threaten Cameron as Tory Party Civil War Escalates

  • Bookmakers slash odds on prime minister’s ouster by year end
  • Cameron makes ‘positive case’ for EU with London mayor Monday
Photographer: Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

Splits in the U.K. Conservative Party pose a growing threat to David Cameron’s chances of remaining prime minister after the Brexit referendum as “blue-on-blue” attacks become increasingly acrimonious.

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Bookmakers cut the odds on Cameron’s ouster this year as former London Mayor Boris Johnson and Justice Secretary Michael Gove, prominent Conservative campaigners to leave the European Union, said the premier’s broken promises on immigration were “corrosive of public trust” in a letter to the Sunday Times newspaper.

Divisions within the Tory party worsened over the weekend, with one lawmaker saying that dissidents may mount a challenge to Cameron’s leadership even if he wins his campaign to keep Britain in the EU. The ferocity of the attacks from Cameron’s cabinet colleague, Gove, in particular may make it impossible for the prime minister to stitch his government back together after the referendum, according to Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary, University of London.

“The Gove and Johnson letter was an escalation of the rumbling civil war,” Bale said by phone. “We’ve not seen such a clear rupture of agreed government policy or such a push on collective cabinet responsibility towards breaking point as we have this weekend.”

Less than a month before the June 23 referendum and with some polls suggesting the outcome is too close to call, the debate has turned increasingly caustic: parliament’s Treasury select committee on Friday accused both sides of misleading voters with “bogus claims.” After the publication of several reports by the Treasury focused on the potential economic shock of an exit, the Leave campaign is seeking to regain control of the debate by focusing on the impact of EU membership on migration.

Immigration Failure

Cameron’s opponents are trying to skewer him over an election promise to cut annual immigration to tens of thousands. Net migration to the U.K. rose to 333,000 in 2015, just below the record, and a 20,000 increase from 2014, the Office of National Statistics said on Thursday.

With those in favor of a Brexit stepping up their personal attacks on the prime minister, bookmaker William Hill Plc is offering betting odds of 2/1 -- a 33 percent chance -- that he’ll be pushed out by the end of the year. At the start of the campaign in February, William Hill saw just a 9 percent probability of Cameron being replaced in 2016.

“Political punters seem to believe that even if the EU referendum produces a ‘Remain’ verdict, the Tory party will have become so destabilized that the clamor for a new leadership election will become irresistible,” William Hill spokesman Graham Sharp said in an e-mailed statement.

The disquiet among rank-and-file Conservative lawmakers continues to grow. Lawmaker Andrew Bridgen told BBC 5 live that more than four dozen lawmakers from Cameron’s party were ready to back a vote of no-confidence in the prime minister.

“If there’s a small ‘remain’ vote,” then “I think there probably would be 50 colleagues who’d be very dissatisfied with the prime minister’s performance,” he said.

Economic Concerns

Cameron will speak at a campaign event in London Monday alongside London Mayor Sadiq Khan of the Labour Party, who would be an opponent of the prime minister in more normal times. The two leaders will present a series of five “guarantees” that can be secured with a vote to remain in the EU.

“These guarantees --- from safeguarding our economy to protecting our security -- show the positive case for remaining inside the EU,” Cameron plans to say, according to an e-mailed transcript of his remarks. “Whenever Leave campaigners are asked what Britain will look like outside of the EU, all they can say is: ‘we just don’t know.”’

A poll commissioned by the Observer newspaper showing nine out of 10 economists agree an exit would cause economic damage. The IPSOS Mori online survey of over 600 economists showed 88 percent of respondents said leaving the EU single market would damage Britain’s growth prospects over the next five years. The survey was carried out from May 19 to May 27.

“The plan on the ‘Leave’ side is clearly to ramp up immigration demands in the hope that forces Cameron and remain to react and then play on their territory,” Bale said. If Cameron and the “Remain” campaign “are wise, they will get back to talking about the economy.”

— With assistance by Svenja O'Donnell

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