Tories In Trouble

Britain's conservatives are dividing over their country's future in Europe.

Britain’s Conservative Party is at war with itself. The larger of the two parties in the country’s governing coalition is bitterly divided over gay rights, the country's continuing membership in the European Union and Prime Minister David Cameron's leadership style.

Of these three issues, Cameron fatigue is probably the most damaging. The Eton- and Oxford-educated prime minister is seen as both a weak leader and as a condescending toff who has little time for the party faithful. Much like President Obama, Cameron has surrounded himself with a small clique of friends, some of whom are government ministers, others big funders, but virtually all of whom consider the Euroskeptic and anti-gay marriage rank and file to be, in the choice words attributed to Cameron's Oxford mate and Tory party chairman Lord Feldman, "all mad swivel-eyed loons." Indeed, the phrase, or elements of it, have been used by other Cameron allies as well. No wonder that the British press has now labelled the prime minister's current travails "loongate."

Feldman's reported remark was prompted by bedrock Tory opposition to both same sex marriage and Britain's continued membership in Europe. On May 21, 128 members of parliament, and over 40 percent of all Conservatives in the House of Commons, voted against the gay marriage bill that had Cameron's unconditional support. The only reason he prevailed was because both the Liberal Democrats, junior partners in the coalition government, along with much of the Labour opposition, supported the bill. (It may still face difficulties in the House of Lords).

With respect to Europe, it appears that Cameron's promise to hold a referendum on continued membership after the next election is frustrating the large Euroskeptic bloc of about 100 Tory MPs and the equally if not more anti-European Conservative local associations. Both would rather have the referendum held before the next election, while the Tories are in power. At a minimum, they want a law passed that ensures that the referendum will be held regardless of which party is in power. Ironically, Cameron is himself a Euroskeptic, but that is not enough for the hardliners.

The Tory infighting has become so nasty that Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats, has accused the Conservatives of destabilizing the government. The LibDems remain strongly pro-Europe and oppose any law that would enshrine Cameron's promise to hold the referendum. They also are strong proponents of gay marriage. Unsurprisingly, London is rife with speculation that the coalition government will not last out its term, which is scheduled to end in 2015.

Cameron's troubles also include a major challenge from the anti-Europe UK Independence Party. The UKIP made a strong showing in Britain's recent local elections and after the next election could displace the LibDems as the third largest party in the House of Commons. The party appears to be drawing off disgruntled Tory voters, much to the Conservative leadership's chagrin.

Not to be overlooked in this catalogue of Cameron's troubles is the threat of Scottish independence. Long the objective of the Scottish Nationalist Party, it now will be the subject of a Scottish vote in September 2014. While polls currently show a majority of Scots voting to remain in the United Kingdom, the vote poses yet another headache for the embattled prime minister.

Despite his difficulties, Cameron's leadership is not in immediate jeopardy. Tory grumbling is getting louder, but it is not loud enough to ditch the prime minister. Moreover, as a very senior Conservative backbencher pointed out to me, Labour leader Ed Miliband has not been able to exploit Cameron's difficulties. He too is hurting in the polls. If Cameron can weather loongate, and get past the fallout from the gay marriage bill—which most Britons, especially those under 40, strongly support—he may well lead his party into the next election, and possibly form another government. If, however, the Tories are beaten whenever the next national poll takes place, it is a fair bet that the party will have a new leader very soon thereafter.

Dov Zakheim served as the undersecretary of defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the U.S. Department of Defense from 2001–2004 and as the deputy undersecretary of defense (planning and resources) from 1985-1987. He also served as DoD's civilian coordinator for Afghan reconstruction from 2002–2004. He is a member of The National Interest's advisory council.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/valeriy osipov