David Cameron: Houdini or Rogue Trader?

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davidcamelionby Garvan Walshe, SPS MW Fellow (*)

David Cameron’s election victory surprised everyone, but with hindsight appears obvious. As in every election since 1979, the British people voted for the more centrist of the two parties. Nevertheless victory presents the Prime Minister with an almost impossible dilemma. It appears that if he is to keep his country together, he must split his party but if he is to keep his party together he must split his country.

This is but the latest trap of the Prime Minister’s own making. In extricating himself from the most urgent pickle, he gives no thought to the trouble he thereby stores up. So far he as always managed to escape, like the financial trader whose risky bets put him back in the black, but the EU referendum will be his most difficult act yet.

He had no choice but to give in to pressure promise in-out referendum on British membership of the EU. His backbenchers would have made his life impossible if he had not. Around 50 of them will certainly campaign to leave regardless of the package of reforms or concessions Mr Cameron achieves, and enough would consider joining the “out” campaign to shred his authority as Prime Minister. The sheer surprise of winning a majority nobody expected will give him some time, and the intemperate reaction from parts of the left is set to encourage Tories to close ranks for a while, but the mood of unity will decay. Party management is his weakest suit and success at this election will reinforce, not change, his inner circle’s high-handed habits.

If the past is a guide to future performance, we would expect trouble (particularly if passing a new British Bill of Rights, proves too difficult for even the exceptionally talented Justice Secretary, Michael Gove), which Mr Cameron would try to appease by making concessions to his obstreperous right wing. This most flexible of Prime Ministers might even contemplate declaring the EU negotiations a failure and return to England to campaign for “Out.” After all, he has just appointed as his new policy chief Camilla Cavendish, who recently wrote that she thought Britain could remain in the EU but exempt itself from freedom of movement.

That however is to reckon without Scotland. If Britain were to vote to leave the EU, the Scots would demand an immediate independence referendum to allow them to stay in. The unionist campaign would lose its strongest argument, the status quo, because staying in the UK would mean huge uncertainty. But failure to obtain sufficient concessions risks splitting the party.

Will Mr Cameron avoid having to choose between being the last Prime Minister of the United Kingdom or the last Leader of the Conservative Party? We won’t have to wait too long to find out…

(*) The MWPBlog is a platform for MW Fellows to address scholarly topics and comment on current affairs. The thoughts expressed in the posts represent solely the views of the posting Fellows and not of the Max Weber Programme