Has Cameron learnt nothing from Peel?

4 Mar 2016


With Cameron now facing the prospect of the Conservative Party dividing itself over the upcoming EU referendum, there is no doubt that the Prime Minister has failed to learn anything from the past history of the Tories.


Cameron has certainly attempted to address the flaws with our membership of the EU, an issue that has divided the Conservative Party for thirty years. And yet, frankly too many MPs and journalists are tearing apart Cameron’s renegotiation, seeing it as nothing more than a PR exercise. By failing to learn from the lessons of Robert Peel, Cameron faces the possibility that he will be ousted regardless of the outcome. If he loses the referendum, he may have to resign sooner, and if he wins, he could still be ousted before 2019 by a predominantly Eurosceptic party.


If you observe the context of Cameron’s leadership, it is very similar to that of Peel’s. The latter was leader of the Conservative Party from 1832 until 1846. Peel presided over reforms and measures that made the then Tory Party more electable. This included providing constructive opposition to the Whig government at the time, improving the organisation and discipline of the Conservative Party and, the most important reform of all, renaming the damaged Tory Party, which had been reduced to 175 seats, to the Conservative Party. That number was similar to the 165 seats the Tories won in 1997.


Like Peel, Cameron has attempted to appeal to the middle ground and has gradually made the Conservative Party more electable over time. Peel found himself in a minority government, somewhat different to Cameron who chose the option of forming a coalition with the Liberal Democrats before gaining the first Conservative majority since 1992 last year. Whilst Cameron has not led the Tories since 1997, there is no doubt that full-scale modernisation of the party did not take place until he became leader and that he did it in a similar timeframe to Peel, the latter of whom finally won a majority for the Conservatives in 1841.


But, like Cameron, Peel had to deal with a divisive issue while at the helm. The issue was that of the Corn Laws (laws which imposed restrictions and tariffs on grain coming into the United Kingdom after the Napoleonic Wars from 1815 to 1846). There were many Conservatives who supported protectionism, like Benjamin Disraeli, who came into conflict with modernisers, like Peel, who supported free trade. Peel used the 1845 Potato Famine in Ireland as an excuse to repeal the Corn Laws. But Peel made an enemy out of the witty Disraeli who brought down Peel during many parliamentary brawls. Because Peel did not possess the skills to tackle Disraeli or keep the Conservative Party united, the Prime Minister was forced to resign in 1846 . The issue caused so much division that the Conservative Party did not gain a majority again until 1874, despite brief minority Tory administrations coming to power before then.


Cameron faces the same fate as Peel if he is not careful. He has already had a brawl with Boris Johnson, a figure with the charisma and wit of Disraeli and the ambition to lead the Conservative Party. If Cameron goes about insulting Brexiteers in the Tory Party and making enemies, he could find himself out of office this year. Of course, losing the referendum will merely speed up the process of Cameron’s ultimate demise. Either way, Cameron will suffer the same fate as Peel if he fails to keep the Conservative Party united.


After the Corn Laws were repealed, Britain experienced significant prosperity. If it turns out that Cameron is on the wrong side of history and Britain prospers outside the EU, all his scaremongering and insults will return to haunt the PM. With increasing evidence suggesting Britain could do very well outside the EU, has Cameron risked everything for an institution that may not have a long-term future, just to initiate rather minor reforms? Cameron’s renegotiation, whilst noble, fails to deal with the fundamental flaws of the EU, like freedom of movement and the democratic deficit. Peel risked his future to change Britain; Cameron has not been so bold. Indeed, if Cameron had secured worthwhile reforms, perhaps the Conservative Party would be more united, and the PM’s future would be more secure.


Now, instead, he has opened the way for Boris to become leader. History is there to stop people from repeating past mistakes. Cameron can only hope that, if he does resign, the one thing that will stop a divided Conservative Party from losing office for thirty years is weak opposition from the Labour Party. Because what happened to the Conservatives after 1846? The Whigs formed a government under Lord John Russell. Cameron should hope he has not made Prime Minister Corbyn a likely prospect.

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