Brexit or Not, Tories Set For a Shock

Emmanuil Papavasileiou
June 23, 2016

As Brits queue up to decide whether Britain will remain in the European Union, it's worth considering what a vote either way will mean for the Conservative Party.

The Brexit campaign began as a purely nationalistic idea; there was limited evidence to back up claims that exiting the EU could help Britain’s economy. But the movement has gained momentum in recent months. On the day of the vote, an average of the last six Brexit polls showed that 51% of those surveyed were in favour of staying in the union, while 49% were keen to leave, according to The Telegraph

Prime Minister David Cameron, Chancellor George Osborne and London Mayor Sadiq Khan have done their best to convince voters to stay in Europe. Meanwhile, former London Mayor Boris Johnson, Justice Secretary Michael Gove and UK Independence Party (UKIP) leader Nigel Farage have fanned the flames of nationalism and succeeded in creating the prospect of a Brexit. However, many prominent proponents of Vote Leave come from inside the Conservative party. That raises the question of what a 'Leave' vote would mean for both Cameron and the future of the Conservative Party.

Promising an EU referendum was key to Cameron’s re-election in May 2015, at a time when UKIP’s numbers were a growing threat to the Conservatives. Europe’s economic crisis - caused by spiralling debt in Greece and other southern European countries, as well as Brussels’ poor handling of it and unpopular austerity measures - has fuelled anti-EU sentiment that UKIP used to their advantage. 

Several Conservative Party members and right-wing voters started to support UKIP in the belief that Brussels controls the UK’s immigration policies and imposes limits on its financial sector. Sensing the discontent, Cameron committed to holding a referendum if he was re-elected. The proposal served to unify the Conservatives, defeat Labour and win back voters who had defected to UKIP. But his intention was always to remain in the EU; now that the referendum is at hand, the Conservative party is at serious risk of fracturing and devolving.


A key element of the 'Vote Stay' campaign was a proposed deal with Brussels that, in the event that Britain stays, would mean looser regulation of the UK financial sector. It would also bar new immigrants from receiving benefits during their first four years in the UK. Cameron also enlisted the help of US President Barack Obama, who claimed that a Brexit would weaken relations between the US and UK.

Backlash from Leave campaigners prompted Cameron to descend into hyperbolic warnings about wars and genocide. Nonetheless, his opponents were unable to explain the net benefit to the UK economy if international businesses leave and trade with other European countries becomes more difficult.

If Brits do vote to leave, it could cause irreversible damage within the divided Tory party and have a direct impact on Cameron’s future in politics. Even if Britain chooses to stay, there’s still a post-referendum threat to both Cameron and Osborne of a party reshuffle and continued clashes with pro-Brexit Conservatives. However the vote turns out, the Tories could be in trouble.