The headlines in recent days have been dominated by talk of Tory splits over Europe. The culmination of David Cameron’s EU membership renegotiation, and the subsequent confirmation of the date for a referendum, have seen dozens of Conservative MPs declare that they will oppose their leader and campaign for Britain to withdraw from the EU. That their ranks will include one of Cameron’s closest allies, Michael Gove, and one of his potential successors, Boris Johnson, has only heightened speculation about divisions with the party.

For those of a certain age, stories concerning Conservative divisions over Europe will be nothing new. The party has long been divided over Europe, from the moment of Britain’s entry to the EEC in January 1973 (which was only possible because some Labour MPs supported the European Communities Act 1972) to the fall of Margaret Thatcher over the issues of membership of the ERM in November 1990. Perhaps the most dramatic of these splits – certainly the most damaging – were the divisions over the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, which saw twenty-two MPs rebel against the government, and led John Major to describe three of his Cabinet colleagues as ‘bastards’.

The irony is that the splits within the Conservative Party today pale in comparison with those of previous generations. The divisions of the early 1990s represented a profound difference of opinion between those MPs who took fundamentally different views on the merits of the European project, and on whether Britain had a future within it. The dyed-in-the-wool eurosceptic MPs co-existed with a small but committed handful of europhile MPs associated with the Conservative Group for Europe. If the eurosceptic Maastricht rebels interpreted political integration as a threat to parliamentary sovereignty and national identity, the europhile Group for Europe adopted a position which would have put Britain at the heart of developing European institutions. Major – whose own position was rather more ambivalent and pragmatic – found the task of party management near impossible in the face of such implacably opposed positions.

Even at the time of these disputes, however, the ideological composition of the parliamentary Conservative Party was changing. In 1995 survey work conducted by political scientists revealed that there had been a marked generational shift in the way in which Conservative MPs thought about Europe. MPs elected in 1979 or afterwards (i.e. under Margaret Thatcher’s leadership) were far more likely to hold eurosceptic views than MPs elected in 1974 or earlier. The gradual reduction in the number of of MPs from pre-1979 cohorts – a process accelerated by the catastrophic election defeat of May 1997 – has led to a diminution of europhile MPs in the parliamentary party, and gradual cohesion around a eurosceptic position. While differences remain over the extent to which Conservative MPs would like to see Britain’s relationship with the EU reformed – ranging from outright withdrawal to partial renegotiation – by 2008 one analyst felt able to write that the party had ‘staved off the threat of internal fragmentation’.

The differences between the Conservative MPs on opposing sides of today’s referendum debate are, therefore, differences of degree rather than differences of principle. With some notable exceptions – the former Home Secretary and Chancellor, Ken Clarke, being the most prominent – there are very few Conservative MPs who could legitimately be described as europhiles. Recent research from Tim Bale and Philip Cowley has revealed that only one-quarter of Conservative MPs believe that the UK has ‘greatly benefited from being a member of the EU’ (as opposed to ninety per cent of Labour MPs), and tended to confirm the suspicion that contemporary debates around the EU revolve far more around inter-party divisions than intra-party splits. Today’s Conservative Party is rather closer to a spectrum of scepticism, stretching from ‘soft’ eurosceptics (Cameron, Osborne) to hardcore europhobes (Cash, Bone), than the divided and dysfunctional party of the early 1990s.

The reality is that even those MPs who campaign for Remain are at best ambivalent, at worst uneasy, about the EU. They share many of the concerns of their counterparts from the Leave campaign, even if they have ultimately arrived at a different conclusion about whether the benefits of membership outweigh the costs. None of which will necessarily insulate the Conservative Party from the kind of internecine splits which characterised the issue in the early 1990s. While the divisions within the parliamentary party might be much smaller than they once were, the referendum will compel Conservative MPs to choose one side or the other. The belief that some MPs have chosen the ‘wrong’ side – or that their choices have been motivated the prospect of professional advancement, rather than by principle – leaves open the possibility that the referendum might open wounds that will be difficult to heal. The party has a difficult few months ahead.

Dr Matthew Francis

Birmingham Teaching Fellow, Department of History, College of Arts and Law