It’s no secret that segments of Britain’s populace and political class have never reconciled themselves to being a part of the experiment in supranational government known as the European Union. The issue of whether Britain should even belong to the EU comes up again and again in pubs, the press, and Parliament—and constitutes the core philosophy of an anti-EU political faction called the U.K. Independence Party.
Now, in the midst of the protracted European crisis, British “euro-skepticism” has reared its head in a most public and (especially for Prime Minister David Cameron) embarrassing manner. Late on Oct. 24, the House of Commons considered whether to call a referendum on Britain’s continued membership in the European Union. The non-binding resolution was soundly defeated, by a vote of 483 to 111, but 81 of the “pro” votes came from members of Cameron’s own Conservative (aka Tory) party—the largest such backbench rebellion since at least World War II.
Cameron tried on Oct. 25 to downplay the significance of the Tory split, saying there was “no bad blood, no rancor, no bitterness” over the actions of the rebels. But coming just two days before a scheduled meeting of 27 EU leaders to hammer out a resolution to the twin crises of European sovereign debt and bank recapitalization, the U.K. Parliamentary posturing looked like a slap in the face to the country’s beset Continental cousins.
Cameron has argued that even as a non-member of the euro, the U.K. should be involved in discussions over how to save it. “We must safeguard the interests of countries that want to stay outside the euro, particularly with respect to the integrity of the single market for all 27 countries of the EU,” he told reporters on Oct. 23 after a meeting in Brussels with EU leaders.
The unexpectedly large anti-EU sentiment in Parliament undercut that case by casting Britain in the role of indifferent outsider. As Cameron struggled to contain any impression of British gloating over Europe’s woes, many were left to wonder whether Europe’s third-largest economy would ultimately come to the aid of its neighbors in case of emergency—or only if its vital interests were at stake.