Skip to main content

British Prime Minister David Cameron arrives at the EU council in Brussels, Belgium, on Feb. 19, 2016.YVES HERMAN/Reuters

When British Prime Minister David Cameron launched the referendum on Britain's future in the European Union, he urged his cabinet colleagues not to attack each other during the campaign.

So much for that.

Hardly a day goes by without one cabinet colleague calling another a liar or making some kind of attack on Mr. Cameron. Some Conservatives have openly called for the Prime Minister to resign, regardless of the outcome of the June 23 vote, and many wonder how the government, elected just a year ago, can survive.

Nearly half of the Conservative caucus and seven senior cabinet ministers have broken ranks with Mr. Cameron and support pulling Britain out of the EU. Two prominent ministers, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, are leading the Vote Leave campaign and both have relentlessly criticized Mr. Cameron, saying he can't be trusted on the EU issue and calling some of his campaign tactics "offensive and cretinous."

Mr. Cameron has shot back, accusing Mr. Gove and Mr. Johnson of telling "untruths" and trying to con the public into voting to leave the EU.

The Tory divisions became all too clear during a recent television debate when Energy Minister Amber Rudd, who supports the Remain side, mocked Mr. Johnson for his "expertise" in telling jokes and suggested he is only interested in becoming prime minister. She closed by saying Mr. Johnson "is the life and soul of the party, but he is not the man you want driving you home at the end of the evening."

Peterborough MP Stewart Jackson, a Vote Leave supporter, is among many in the Tory ranks who believe that Mr. Cameron's future as Prime Minister is in doubt.

"Cameron is desperate to win this because, frankly, his premiership is finished if he doesn't win. That's not a state secret; everyone knows that," Mr. Jackson said in an interview. "We're in a bad place because we're fighting each other. We're split half and half. But this always had to happen because the Tory party has the European question going through its veins."

Not everyone on Vote Leave shares that view. Andrea Leadsom, the Minister of State for Energy and a leading figure in the Leave campaign, backs Mr. Cameron.

"He is the Prime Minister. He's recently won a general election. He's given us this opportunity to have this referendum and I think the party will come back together," Ms. Leadsom said in a recent interview. "You always get a few people who aren't happy with how things are. But the vast the majority of colleagues remain colleagues … if we are determined not to let it become a real problem for the party or the government."

The intra-Tory battling has bemused the other political parties, which are largely unified on the referendum issue; Labour and the Liberal Democrats support Remain while the United Kingdom Independence Party backs Leave.

"Whatever the result, the blue-on-blue civil war will continue," said Stephen Kinnock, a Labour MP. "It has just been so divisive. It's very difficult to see how they put it all together again. … I think there will be a big space for us to step into because the Tories will be all over the shop. So it's a great opportunity for us."

Jeremy Jennings, head of the political theory department at King's College in London, believes that Mr. Cameron will find it hard to work with his detractors after the referendum. "On June 23, normal politics is just going to start again? It's not going to happen, is it?" he said.

He added that he could envision Mr. Cameron forgiving and welcoming his long-time friend Mr. Gove back into the cabinet after the referendum. But not Mr. Johnson. "How are these guys going to sit down together like nothing happened?"

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe