The war within: Conservative Party

The war within British political parties

If British PM Cameron loses the vote on EU membership, he will be under great pressure to resign.
If British PM Cameron loses the vote on EU membership, he will be under great pressure to resign.

LONDON • Perhaps even stranger is the war within the Conservative Party, which is ostensibly over British membership in the European Union.

But it is also about the party's direction and the succession to Prime Minister David Cameron, who has said he will not seek a third term.

In a sense, winning a parliamentary majority in May has allowed for more internal strife. Mr Cameron promised a referendum on a "Brexit" only to pacify a strong minority in his party during the election campaign and to undermine the UK Independence Party and its anti-Europe, anti-immigrant platform.

If Mr Cameron loses the vote on EU membership, he will be under great pressure to resign, and his closest collaborator, Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, will probably sink with him.

The omens are not good for Mr Cameron. A new opinion poll published yesterday showed the number of Britons wanting to leave the EU rising in the wake of the Paris terror attacks and the Cologne assaults.

The poll put the EU exit camp in the lead by 53 per cent to 47 per cent. A referendum has been promised by the end of 2017 but could take place as early as June.

The poll, for the centre-right and eurosceptic Mail on Sunday newspaper, excludes undecided voters. If they are included, 42 per cent are in favour of leaving, 38 for remaining, with 20 per cent yet to make up their mind. The survey, conducted online on Jan 15 and 16, involved 1,004 respondents and had a margin of error of 2 percentage points.

In the case of a Brexit, another referendum on Scottish independence would be a given.

Mr Cameron clearly thinks the essential conservatism of Britons will save him.

But everything else has become secondary now, even the vexing issue of a third runway for Heathrow Airport, for which a decision had been promised by Christmas. That decision has been postponed - another effort to keep the Conservatives together until the EU referendum.

Perhaps then, if Mr Cameron survives, he can begin to move the party to what appears to be a largely empty centre ground.

NEW YORK TIMES,AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 18, 2016, with the headline 'Divided over EU and succession'. Print Edition | Subscribe