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Lawson's EU intervention is a preview of the Tory war to come

If, as Lawson predicts, Cameron's renegotiation strategy fails, the Tory party will suffer its worst split since the reform of the Corn Laws.

Former Conservative chancellor Nigel Lawson warns that any concessions David Cameron wins from the EU will be "inconsequential". Photograph: Getty Images.

There is a significant body of opinion in the Conservative Party that will not be satisfied until David Cameron finally supports what they really crave: unilateral withdrawal from the EU. That group has now won its most significant recruit in the form of Nigel Lawson. In a 2,000 word essay in today's Times, the fomer Tory chancellor writes that the EU has become "a bureaucratic monstrosity" that imposes "substantial economic costs" on its members, and that "the case for exit is clear". Having voted in favour of membership in the 1975 referendum, Lawson declares that he will vote "out" in 2017. 

For Cameron, already struggling to fend off demands for an early EU "mandate referendum" after UKIP's performance in the county council elections, the intervention could not come at a worse time. The Prime Minister's strategy is premised on the belief that the UK can use the euro crisis to repatriate major powers from Brussels, but Lawson warns that he is doomed to fail. In the most damaging section of the piece, Thatcher's former chancellor writes "that that any changes that Mr Cameron — or, for that matter, Ed Miliband — is able to secure" will be "inconsequential". He points out that the changes that Harold Wilson (who similarly renegotiated Britain's membership before staging an in/out referendum) was able to secure were "so trivial that I doubt if anyone today can remember what they were". Cameron, he suggests, will do no better. 

Lawson's piece is a reminder of why the EU referendum has the potential to result in the biggest Conservative split since the reform of the Corn Laws. Around a third of Tory MPs (by Tim Montgomerie's estimate) are committed to supporting withdrawal, with more likely to join them if, as Lawson predicts, Cameron fails to secure significant concessions. Cabinet ministers, including Michael Gove and Eric Pickles, have already signalled that they will vote to leave the EU unless Britain's membership is substantially reformed.

The question that will again be put to Cameron is that which shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander has continually asked: what percentage of your demands do you need to secure to support a Yes vote? 30 per cent, 50 per cent, 80 per cent? The PM's response is to say that no one goes into a negotiation "hoping and expecting to fail" but Lawson's pessimistic forecast will sharpen the debate. At a time when the Tories would do well to take Cameron's earlier advice to "stop banging on about Europe", the two Nigels - Farage and Lawson - have ensured that they will do little else.