David Cameron’s right-wing problem

Published by The Wall Street Journal (7th May 2014)

Shortly after David Cameron became leader of the Conservatives in Britain, a caller to a radio show asked him about a minor annoyance to his right called the U.K. Independence Party, or Ukip. At the time, the obscure party formed to remove Britain from the European Union was causing trouble over political donations. They were just making mischief, said the new Tory leader, dismissing them as “fruitcakes and loonies and closet racists, mostly.”

No longer. Ukip stands poised to win elections for the European Parliament on May 22. Polls are predicting that Ukip could handily defeat the opposition Labour Party, forcing the prime minister’s own party into an embarrassing third place. Ukip leapt to prominence by posing as an antiestablishment insurgency under populist politician Nigel Farage, who claims to speak for the silent majority while clutching pints of ale. Like several other disruptive parties in Europe, Ukip has surfed waves of hostility to immigration, Brussels bureaucrats and mainstream politicians.

Ukip’s rise has already made the centrist Mr. Cameron tack to the right, even though some of the party’s candidates have proved his radio criticism true. There are now four extraordinary electoral hurdles the Conservative leader must clear over the next three years, any one of which could bring an end to his time at Downing Street. These events could end the country’s first coalition since 1945, and even rip apart the United Kingdom and reshape Europe.

The easiest hurdle is the May contest for the European Parliament. Britons care little about these elections, often flirting with fringe parties, and few voters could name the representatives they send to the largely powerless body. A Ukip victory might incite renewed rumbling from rebels on the right, who never warmed to Mr. Cameron, but party pollsters predict that most disgruntled Tory voters will return in the next general election. “They are behaving like men having fun on their stag night before settling down with a more sensible wife,” said one prime-ministerial aide.

Four months later comes the referendum on Scottish independence, which once seemed predictable but has turned into a knife fight for the future of the United Kingdom. For a long time, only about one-third of Scots supported the idea of severing the three-centuries-old union. Then nationalists won a landslide victory in Scottish parliamentary elections in 2011. The nationalists have since crowed about Scotland’s differences from England and promoted the cause of freedom from the “shackles” of London.

While the campaign for Scottish independence has fizzed with Braveheart bravura, its opponents have looked lackluster and relentlessly negative. The latest polling indicates that the Scottish separatists need a swing of just 2% to win independence, with many voters still undecided. The Tories play only a background role in this campaign, thanks to their post-Thatcher toxicity north of the border. Yet if Scotland does vote for independence, Mr. Cameron would struggle to survive, as he would have granted the ballot that broke up Great Britain. He is, after all, leader of the Conservative and Unionist Party, founded on principles of national unity.

Then there’s a general election in May next year, the first since the ruling Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition instituted five-year terms for Parliament. The prime minister confronts a Labour Party leaning left under Ed Miliband, who won the leadership in 2010 after defeating his older brother in a strangely Shakespearean tussle. Now Mr. Miliband, a wonkish son of a prominent Marxist academic, boasts of bringing back socialism, intervening in markets and redistributing wealth. He is offering the most left-wing manifesto of any Labour candidate in three decades; in recent days, he has revived the idea of rent controls and refused to rule out suggestions to renationalize the railways.

Labour has consistently led in opinion polls for more than three years as the government grappled with an economic downturn and cut public spending. But as growth returns, Labour has struggled to update its jaded economic narrative, which has Mr. Cameron’s team angling for an unexpected victory. The result, however, is hard to predict. Support for the Liberal Democrat coalition partners has collapsed, and Ukip support has surged, coupled with a growing hostility to mainstream politics. Old certainties of the British two-party system are breaking down, making politics more challenging but punditry more fun.

Even if Mr. Cameron wins again in 2015, he faces one more enormous hurdle. The nation’s relationship with Europe has tortured the Tories since the days of Lady Thatcher, and it would return with a vengeance over a U.K. vote on European Union membership, promised for 2017. Mr. Cameron has rightly said that his party alienated voters by “banging on” endlessly about this subject; it is something that obsesses activists and politicians more than most voters. Yet last year Mr. Cameron promised a referendum on membership in a misguided attempt to pacify party rebels who were emboldened by the rise of Ukip.

The prime minister plans to repatriate some controversial social, employment and environmental powers from Brussels, then campaign to retain membership on the basis that he won the best deal available. He will be supported by much of the business community but opposed by many backbench members of Parliament and most party activists. If he loses this vote, Britain would exit the EU and the blow to his authority would force him to resign. But even if the prime minister wins, the fury of thwarted party hard-liners might be intense enough to spark a coup.

If Mr. Cameron stumbles over any of these hurdles, the consequences could be seismic, not just for his own reputation but also for his country, which would be ruled by a left-wing government, broken up or kicked out of Europe. If he clears them, however, Mr. Cameron would likely step down soon after, his image transformed and his place in history secured.

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