Trident and Europe – could we see both major parties divided?

By Chris Rogers February 12, 2016 4:00 pm

Could we about to see both major parties fractured at the same time?

It’s not as outlandish idea as you might think. Historically the British political system has seen one major party in the ascendency and one in at least partial decline. And the one with the whip hand doesn’t necessarily need to be the party of the government. Ask anyone around John Major’s government in 1997 if they felt themselves to be in pole position next to the resurgent New Labour.

But fate and the political agenda have conspired to ensure that both Labour’s and the Conservatives’ kryptonite is on the docket in the coming months.

Labour, despite the disconnect between the party leadership and many within the parliamentary party, remains at odds over Trident above all else. Jeremy Corbyn is resolute in his anti-nuclear position. His Shadow Defence Secretary is, at the very least, sympathetic to his views. But many on the back and front benches – not least Hilary Benn – remain implacably on the view that the nuclear deterrent is necessary and should be renewed.

Such is the split amongst the Labour ranks on this issue, that it is the blue touch paper that could ignite civil war within the Party. You would think this would represent an open goal for the Conservatives, and any political strategist would tell you the plan to capitalise on this opportunity should be very simple. Schedule the vote, watch Labour cannibalise itself, and reap the benefits at the ballot box by 2020.

But the truth is that the Conservatives, despite delivering the most unlikely of majorities in the General Election, could be in little better shape in the coming months. The reason is as simple as two words: EU referendum.

Europe is as contentious an issue for Tories as Trident is, these days at least, for Labour. The signs are David Cameron will face considerable opposition from him backbenches, and potentially from within his own Cabinet, over his renegotiation package. And with the EU referendum set to pit Tory MP against Tory MP in what will be a hard fought and at time vitriolic campaign, the big question is how the Conservatives will come together once the British public has had its say.

The latest news is that the Prime Minister is considering pushing back a parliamentary vote on Trident, believing it’s ill-advised before the referendum. Sources within Downing Street have suggested there’s no rush given how deep Labour’s division is on the issue. This would suggest the Tories believe they can capitalise on Labour’s ructions at any time. The truth is very different. The Prime Minister is right to put off a Trident vote. But not because it’ll complicate the EU referendum campaign. Because he’ll need the extra time to pull his party back together.

And we could still see both major parties fractured and divided by the end of the year.

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