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EU referendum opens up a can of worms

By Chris Peterson | China Daily Europe | Updated: 2016-06-19 14:02

Regardless of the result, the Conservatives will have to repair a huge schism that could plague them for many years

UK Prime Minister David Cameron's election pledge was made in the run up to the 2015 general election as a means of uniting the Conservative Party in order to gain a clear victory over Labour's Ed Miliband and rid itself of the increasing fractious Liberal Democrats, with whom they'd been in an uneasy ruling coalition since failing to gain a clear-cut majority in the 2010 plebiscite.

Well, that decision, also aimed at keeping at bay the then perceived threat of Nigel Farage's UKIP party, which was seeking to curb immigration and quit the EU, has now come back to haunt Cameron with a vengeance.

EU referendum opens up a can of worms

British Prime Minister David Cameron joins students at the launch of the Brighter Future In campaign bus at Exeter University on April 7 in Exeter, England. The government have announced that every household in the country will receive a taxpayer-funded leaflet on the referendum setting out the case for Britain to remain in the European Union. Provided to China Daily

Although it achieved its short-term goal - a clear working majority for the Conservative Party in the House of Commons, and crushing UKIP's chances of a serious presence in Parliament, plus the annihilation of the Labour Party - it has raised other, far more serious issues.

It doesn't matter whether it's a yes or no vote to June 23's simple question, the damage to British politics and in particular the Conservative Party has already been done.

Yes, it's true that Cameron vowed he would only serve one more term as Prime Minister until 2020, thus becoming in modern political terminology a lame-duck leader, but by pledging a referendum he's managed, in the eyes of many, to shoot himself in the foot, if you don't mind me mixing my metaphors.

Much of the population are angry that this referendum, which Cameron and his colleagues, perhaps naively, believed would be carried out with reserve and British phlegm, has developed into a bitter shouting match, and a sort of early leadership battle for the Conservatives post-Cameron.

Indeed, many people I've spoken to are angry that the real issue of whether or not the UK should remain in the European Union, has been drowned in the ever-increasing yelling match over who is to become the next leader of the Conservative Party.

Many, and I include myself in this, feel Boris Johnson, the former London Mayor, as well as Iain Duncan-Smith, leader of the Conservatives when they were in opposition and Chris Grayling, the former Justice Secretary, have made a huge error in jumping on the Leave bandwagon, aligning themselves with Nigel Farage and George Galloway.

Johnson in particular is viewed by many for having taken an opportunistic and cynical leap onto the bandwagon to enhance what he sees are his chances for a crack at the leadership of both the country and the Conservative Party.

So the smoke from the burning bonfire that is a de facto leadership battle has, for many, obscured the real reason for the referendum.

I suspect that sanity will prevail, and the Great British Public, as Winston Churchill once called the electorate, will opt to remain.

But it still leaves Cameron with the major headache of repairing the huge schism that has reopened in the Conservatives over Europe, to enable them to continue in office.

There is another scary prospect - much-reviled Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn has been at best lukewarm in leading his party's support for the Remain campaign. This has led many to believe that he is playing some sort of waiting game, hoping the Conservatives will self-destruct and allow him and his former colleagues to take over. Corbyn's critics rightly point out that he's never been in charge of anything up until now, not even a local party committee.

So Cameron's high-flown ideal of allowing the people a democratic right to have their say on Europe has opened up a huge can of worms, as the saying here goes.

Buckle up, it's going to be a bumpy ride.

The author is managing editor of China Daily Europe, based in London. Contact the writer at

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