Cameron's Anti-Brexit Gamble Sparks Off Internal Party Battle

© AFP 2022 / Will OliverBritish Prime Minister David Cameron (R) and London Mayor Boris Johnson (L) pointing at each other on August 24, 2012.
British Prime Minister David Cameron (R) and London Mayor Boris Johnson (L) pointing at each other on August 24, 2012. - Sputnik International
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After decades of division within his Conservative Party over the UK's membership of the European Union, David Cameron has finally set the date for the final showdown, which could yet see him lose the leadership to London Mayor Boris Johnson.

When the UK originally applied to become a member of the European Economic Union (EEC), the request was vetoed by French President Charles de Gaulle, who had been severely miffed about Britain initiating a ceasefire in the Suez Crisis without telling Paris. He was also not happy about allowing the UK to join, fearing it would prompt the US to use it to interfere in European politics.

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The refusal dealt a huge blow to UK Prime Minister Harold MacMillan, who led the Conservative Party and who had been hoping membership of the EEC would help lift Britain out of the economic mess the country was in, following the Second World War. He would not be the first British prime minister to stake his reputation on European affairs.

It was only after de Gaulle was replaced by Georges Pompidou that talks over British membership of the EEC began again, with British negotiations led by Prime Minister Edward Heath. Britain joined the EEC in 1973, against a backdrop of disaffection within the Labour Party, which came to power the following year in 1974, proposing a referendum on the issue. The question asked was: "Do you think that the United Kingdom should remain part of the European Community (the Common Market)?"

It was a crucial — and rare — referendum. The final result was — over 67 percent in favor of remaining in the EEC. However, one crucial quote echoes once again around the corridors of Westminster today.  In the run-up to the 1970 general election, Heath said that further European integration would not happen "except with the full-hearted consent of the parliaments and peoples of the new member countries."

The EEC that many had voted to remain inside was set up to "preserve peace and liberty and to lay the foundations of an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe" and the establishment of a customs union with a common external tariff.

Maastricht Rebels 

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However, roll on a few years to 1992 and the signing of the Maastricht Treaty, which turned the EEC into the European Union. The treaty was signed by Conservative Prime Minister John Major, but it produced a deep rift within his party, with some becoming known as the Maastricht Rebels, who disagreed with many of the treaty's provisions. Major final lost control as well as the next election in 1997. The Conservatives remained out of power for 13 long years.

David Cameron's Conservatives returned to power in 2010, amid increasing concerns that the EU had turned into a monster: a European Commission of unelected members making decisions for London to follow. The European Parliament was elected, but seen as remote and out-of-touch with the common man in the street. Many felt uneasy at the apparent mushrooming of powers within Brussels, the "ever closer union" and the loss of sovereignty to the Brussels gravy-train.

Worse still, the freedom of movement of workers had led to a significant rise in the number of — mainly — Eastern European workers in the UK, which many critics saw as taking jobs away for British people, accepting low paid jobs, where locals would not. The rise of Euroskepticism led to the creation of the UK Independence Party, as well as the strengthening of anti-EU sentiment within the Conservative Party.

This, in turn, led to Cameron promising another In-Out referendum of Britain's EU membership, which he has now announced will take place on June 23 this year.

On June 23rd, you will decide if Britain is stronger, safer and better off in a reformed EU. My #EUReferendum statement:

Posted by David Cameron on Saturday, February 20, 2016

He is now the incumbent Conservative Prime Minister fighting to keep the UK inside the EU, but he is leading a deeply divided party. The ever-popular London Mayor Boris Johnson has now thrown his weight behind the 'Out' campaign, setting the scene for a heavyweight slogging match which is too close to call. 

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 One fifth of the Government Cabinet has turned against Cameron already.

If Cameron loses in the referendum and most Britons vote to leave the EU, the issue will deeply split his party and Johnson may well become the new leader of half of a party. The constitutional crisis will be of earthquake proportions, with Britain having to completely renegotiate its relationship with the rest of the EU.

As Cameron gets to his feet in Parliament Monday to open the debate on the referendum question, many within his party are beginning to think de Gaulle may well have been right all along.

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