Conservative and opposition parties
The Conservative party toyed with euro scepticism during its 13 years in opposition from 1997 and 2010. William Hague was elected leader in 1997 at the age of 36, defeating Europhile Ken Clarke emphasising strong opposition to the euro proposal. The Conservative party secured more seats than Labour in the 1999 European Parliamentary elections. Hague adopted a Eurosceptic stance in the 2001 General Election.
Hague resigned after the 2001 election which brought a second successive Labour landslide and was replaced by the highly Eurosceptic Iain Duncan Smith. He was in turn replaced by Michael Howard in 2003 as Conservative party leader following a vote of no-confidence by members of the Parliamentary party.
After the third successive Conservative defeat, David Cameron was elected party leader in 2005. Cameron took UK Conservative MEPs out of the European People’s Party because of its federalist views which were at odds with party policy.
He had not taken a forthright position on Europe acknowledging the splits in his party. In 2007 he promised he would hold a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, but this was dropped once the treaty had been fully approved by 2009.
The financier Sir James Goldsmith formed the Referendum Party as a single-issue party in 1994 which ran candidates in most seats in the 1997 general election calling for a referendum on aspects of the UK’s membership of the European Union. It briefly held one seat after a Conservative MP defected to it following deselection and won 800,000 [2.6%] is per cent of the vote in the election. Only one of its candidates Nigel Farage secured over 5% of the vote and had his deposit returned. Sir James Goldsmith died two months after the election and the election, and the party was disbanded later that year.
The United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) was formed in 1993, advocating withdrawal from the European Union. It evolved from the anti-Federalist league established in 1991 which strongly opposed the then recent Maastricht treaty and sought to persuade the Conservative party to support the UK leaving the European Union.
Due to the change in the European election voting system to a form of proportional representation UKIP won three seats in the European Parliament with 6.5% of the vote including Nigel Farage in the South-East England constituency. In the 2001 general election, UKIP secured 1.5% of the vote losing much support to the Conservatives whose leader William Hague who had taken a more Eurosceptic stance during the campaign.
UKIP came third in the 2004 European Parliament elections winning 16.1% of the vote and winning 12 seats. It received increased funding from major donors and celebrity endorsements from the chat show host Robert Kilroy silk who stood as a candidate. After a split with Kilroy Silk who left to form his own party, UKIP lost a third of its members and half of its donations. It took 12.2% of the vote in the 2005 election, and 40 of its 496 candidates retained their deposit.
The British National Party appeared to be competing for much the same vote, and many members of the UK national executive favoured an electoral pact, which was strongly opposed by Nigel Farage who became party leader in 2006. He sought to broaden the party’s appeal from a single-issue party, in particular by appealing to former Conservative voters proposing a range of socially conservative policies including reduction immigration, tax cuts and restoring grammar schools. Farage characterised Cameron as a socialist and Cameron was highly critical, referring to them as fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists.
UKIP won 16.5% of the vote winning 13 MEPs in the 2009 European Parliament election, becoming the second-largest UK party behind the Conservatives. Farage resigned as leader after the election to concentrate on becoming a member of Parliament. He stood against the newly elected Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow despite the convention that he is not challenged for re-election. He came third and resumed leadership of UKIP.
2010 Conservatives Back in Power
The May 2010 general election led to the first hung parliament in 36 years. A combination of the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives offered the only viable government and the first coalition since World War II was formed with Conservative leader David Cameron as Prime Minister and Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg as Deputy Prime Minister.
The coalition deal promised that the British government would be a positive participant in the European Union but guaranteed that there would be no further transfer of sovereignty during the course of the next Parliament. It promised that any proposed future treaty which transferred areas of power or competences would be the subject of a referendum.
Unsurprisingly, in the teeth of an existential threat to its existence, the coalition deal ruled out membership of the single currency. It proposed a commission to create a British Bill of Rights incorporating and building on UK’s obligation under the European Convention on Human Rights.
The Liberal Democrats demanded a referendum on the UK first past the post voting system which had seen the party and its predecessors win only a small fraction of the seats in Parliament that their share of the popular would yield under a system of proportional representation. The proposed alternative vote system would have adopted a single-seat system of proportional representation. The Labour Party (which had supported the proposal in the 2010 election) took no official position while the Conservative party campaigned against the change. The referendum was rejected by a 2 to 1 majority in 2011.
Revolts on the EU and 2011 Act
In the first year and a half of the coalition government, there were 22 backbench rebellions on European Union related issues. In late 2011, 81 Conservative MPs defied the whip and voted in favour of a referendum on UK membership of the EU (which did not pass). It became increasingly clear to David Cameron that the much of the Conservative party would accept nothing short of a referendum on EU membership in the next Parliament.
The European Communities Act reasserted that principle of parliamentary sovereignty in relation to EU membership. It denied the EU principle of supremacy and emphasised that all EU laws were founded on the continuing consent of parliament. It declared that that directly applicable or directly effective EU law falls to be recognised and available in law in the United Kingdom only by virtue of the European Communities Act 1972 or where it is required to be recognised and made available in law by virtue of any other Act of Parliament.
The Act provided that, in future, a referendum would be held before the UK could agree to an amendment of the Treaty on European Union (‘TEU’) or of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (‘TFEU’); or before the UK could agree to certain decisions already provided for by TEU and TFEU( if these would transfer power or competence from the UK to the EU. It made provision for the persons who would be entitled to vote in a referendum held as a result of this Act; provided that a separate question would need to be framed for each issue requiring a referendum; and that the Electoral Commission would pursue additional awareness-raising activities in relation to any future referendum held in accordance with this Act.
UKIP fielded candidates in most constituencies in the 2010 General Election and won 13.1% of the vote but no seats. It took an average of 23% of the vote in areas where it stood in the 2013 local elections increasing its number of councillors from 4 to 147. In 2014 it was classified as a major party and won 163 more seats in other local elections in that year.
In the 2014 European parliamentary elections, UKIP won the largest share of the vote (27.5%) ahead of the Conservatives and Labour parties, winning 24 MEPs. It won seats in every region in Britain including its first in Scotland. Its gains were in traditionally Labour voting areas within Wales and the North of England. The Conservatives came in third place. It was the first time in over 100 years that neither Labour nor the Conservatives had won the most seats in a UK wide election.
UKIP gained its first MPs in 2014 when two Conservative MPs who had defected regained their seats in parliamentary by-elections following their resignation, winning respectively 59 % and 42% of the vote in those by-elections. David Cameron in his Conservative party conference speech in Autumn 2014, proclaimed that he would achieve the required renegotiation from the EU, in particular, the modification on the treaty right of free movement of persons which appeared to be a key driver of the UKIP vote.
The Referendum Pledge
Concerned at the continued rise of UKIP in opinion polls, David Cameron promised in 2013 that he would renegotiate the terms of UK membership of the European Union and put the results of that renegotiation to a referendum. The promise was to incorporate the proposal in the Conservative Party manifesto at the next election, so that it would hold, only if the Conservative party won that general election with a majority of seats. This is precisely what Harold Wilson had done almost 40 years earlier to resolve his party’s intractable divisions on the issue.
Much to the surprise of most observers and contrary to the opinion polls, the Conservative party won a narrow but stable 20 seat majority in the following May 2015 election. The European Union Referendum Act 2015 was passed to enable the referendum to take place. David Cameron favoured remaining in a reformed EU and sought to negotiate in four areas, protection of the single market for non-Eurozone members, reduction of red tape exempting Britain from “ever closer union” (the controversial recital in place since the Treaty of Rome) and restricting immigration from EU countries.