Where There is Discord, Can They Bring Harmony? Managing Intra-party Dissent on European Integration in the Conservative Party


  • Philip Lynch,

  • Richard Whitaker

Research Highlights and Abstract

  • The Conservative Party became more united around a soft Eurosceptic position in opposition, but internal divisions are evident on the scale and pace of change to the UK's relationship with the EU.
  • Conservative Party leaders have employed a range of methods to manage intra-party dissent on European integration: intervention in candidate selection, patronage, discipline, policy compromises, permitting low-cost dissent, referendum pledges and reducing issue salience.
  • Dissent on European integration tends to be higher when the Conservatives are in office because governing parties cannot individually control the EU agenda, must take difficult decisions and may have to sacrifice their preferred positions to broker compromises.
  • Eurosceptic dissent has increased because Conservative policy has been diluted in coalition and the crisis in the Eurozone has raised the salience of the EU issue, but Eurosceptic rebels are not a cohesive group and this limits their influence.

Divisions on European integration were prominent in the Conservative Party in the 1990s, but abated in opposition. In this period, the party became more cohesive in terms of attitudes on Europe as it embraced soft Euroscepticism. However, differences over the desired scale and pace of changes to Britain's relationship with the European Union saw dissent increase as the party entered coalition government with the Liberal Democrats. This article examines the effectiveness of various approaches to management of dissent on Europe utilised by the party leadership: intervention in candidate selection; patronage and discipline; permitting limited dissent; policy compromise and deferred decisions; pledging referendums; and agenda setting and issue salience. It shows that intra-party divisions on European integration are particularly difficult to manage and suggests that dissent on the issue may often be higher in governing parties than those in opposition.