Tom Peterkin: Fox reminds us Tories are still divided on EU

HOW one Scottish Tory MP has left his countrymen more than slightly foxed

Liam Fox urged David Cameron to "end the pretence" on EU renegotiation and back Britain's exit, on the Andrew Marr Show. Picture: PA
Liam Fox urged David Cameron to "end the pretence" on EU renegotiation and back Britain's exit, on the Andrew Marr Show. Picture: PA

Shooting the breeze with a prominent Scottish Tory the other day, he mentioned his dismay when Liam Fox suddenly appeared in the newspapers and on the television arguing for the UK to leave the EU.

His call for Cameron to “end the pretence” of EU renegotiation and back an “out” vote at the referendum was deemed an unhelpful intervention for his party north of the Border.

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It would come as little surprise to close observers of British politics that David Cameron’s former defence secretary held views of that nature.

But the prominence given to his remarks meant they were sure to resonate with the millions of well-adjusted souls, who – unlike the obsessives in the Westminster and Holyrood bubbles – see no need to preoccupy themselves with the Eurosceptic credentials of senior Conservatives.

It was the effect of Fox’s words on the electorate at large which concerned the prominent Tory, who was only too aware of the constitutional implications for the UK if Brexit gathers momentum.

Here was a Conservative with a Scottish accent speaking from a Glasgow studio (he must have been back home for a festive break) and delivering a line that was distinctly off message as far as most Scottish Conservatives are concerned.

How inconvenient that a Scottish Tory – albeit one who now represents an English constituency – should remind viewers that there are large swathes of the Conservative Party which is implacably anti-EU.

For decades Europe has been the issue guaranteed to split and thereby harm the Conservative Party. These divisions were enormously damaging for John Major’s government and have been festering ever since. These old wounds are opening up again as the EU referendum looms.

Holding his party together is just one of the challenges facing Cameron, who has hinted that the vote may be as early as June next year.

Judging by the polls, however, his most pressing challenge is actually managing to secure the Yes vote he desires to ensure that Britain remains a member of the EU.

With scepticism growing about his attempts to renegotiate the UK’s relationship within the European Union, the polls are on a knife-edge.

This is worrying for Cameron for all sorts of reasons – not the least being that Brexit would inevitably ramp up SNP demands for a second Scottish independence referendum.

That scenario was referred to by former foreign secretary William Hague in an article in which he listed his manifold frustrations with the EU before finally concluding that, on balance, it was within the UK’s interests to stay in. Britain’s departure from Europe would “increase the chances” of Scotland leaving the UK, Hague said.

“Scottish Nationalists would jump at the chance to reverse the argument of last year’s referendum – now it would be them saying they would stay in Europe without us,” Hague warned. “They would have the pretext for their second referendum and the result of it would be too close to call. To end up destroying the United Kingdom and gravely weakening the European Union would not be a very clever day’s work.”

When it is put like that, it becomes easy to see just why Conservatives north of the Border were somewhat disappointed by their English-based countryman Dr Liam Fox.