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A Double Edged Sword

29/01/2013 10:31 GMT | Updated 30/03/2013 09:12 GMT

David Cameron's long awaited speech regarding a potential EU referendum may have seemed to him like his only available option. With the Conservatives' Euro sceptic right wing becoming increasingly vocal, he really had no choice but to try and placate them. But he may soon find that this speech was a double edged sword.

To see the likely outcome of his decision to make this speech, one needs only to look at the history of the Labour party in the '70s and '80s. Just as David Cameron is now stuck between the Europhiles and Euro sceptic wings of the Conservative Party, Harold Wilson, James Callaghan and Michael Foot all found themselves trapped between the more moderate right wing of the Labour Party (the Roy Jenkins wing) who believed that the party had to modernise and move with the times and the hard left trade union wing (the Tony Benn wing) who were pushing for increased socialism and radical policies like unilateral nuclear disarmament.

Callaghan and Foot's unwillingness to crack down on the militant left led to more moderate members of the Labour Party (led by the so-called Gang of Four) splitting off to form their own centre left party (the Social Democrat Party), which in turn led to the eventual creation of the Liberal Democrats. This exodus put Labour out of power for over a decade, allowing Margaret Thatcher to lead the Conservatives to three successive terms in office. Even after the moderate Neil Kinnock became its leader in 1983, memories of the Labour Party's civil war kept them out of power till 1997, when Tony Blair fulfilled the legacy of Kinnock and the late John Smith by moving Labour to the centre once more.

Every Conservative leader since Thatcher has had his own version of the divisions that crippled the Labour Party, but this was a particular problem for William Hague and Michael Howard and is now a major problem for Cameron. All three of them engaged in attempted "modernisations" of the Conservative party, moving them away from the toxic "nasty party" image that become prevalent when the right wing of the Conservative party was dominant during the Thatcher years. But all three of them have rapidly discovered that this easier said than done, thanks to the tenacious nature of Thatcher's ideological children, who maintain a stranglehold over the party base.

Herein lies Cameron's problem. Whichever way he campaigns on the European issue - the elephant in the room at every Tory party conference just as the unions are at Labour's - one half of his party will be unhappy. If he campaigns to leave the EU (which seems unlikely) then the more liberal end of his party will kick up a stink. But if he campaigns to stay in, which he has said he will, then the far right will make their displeasure clearly felt.

There are also two other factors to consider. If he does campaign to leave, then in the event of another hung parliament in 2015 the Liberal Democrats will probably refuse to join another coalition, leaving Cameron out of office. But if doesn't, then UKIP - already wriggling their way up the polls - will be waiting in the wings to scoop up dissatisfied Conservatives.

It's quite easy to feel sorry for Mr Cameron. Whichever way he now goes, it doesn't look like a political happy ending.