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The EU vote Cameron doesn't want

19th February 2013

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Prime Minister David Cameron has promised the British public an in/out referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union (EU). The referendum itself will give voters a choice of staying in the EU, with more powers retained by Westminster, or leaving the union.

Cameron had previously rejected calls from within his own party for such a renegotiation of Britain’s international position. Indeed, during a session of Prime Minister’s Questions in March 2011, Cameron refused to promise a referendum, saying: “I think that we are better off inside the EU but making changes to it.” Why the sudden change of course? Surely, as Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative Party, he has the final say on Conservative policy?

The recent rise of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), seen in the Corby by-election where they placed third, above the Liberal Democrats, is a significant factor in the new Tory party direction. UKIP have long been regarded by many as a single policy party, something which has hampered their efforts to win seats in parliament. The question is what happens to them now that the Conservatives are set to deliver what UKIP voters have called for? In some ways Cameron has made a shrewd decision, by seeking a referendum he has essentially robbed UKIP of their main source of popularity and made an effort to stem any loss of voters from his party to Nigel Farage’s. However, this move may not work. Instead of neutering them, Cameron’s referendum pledge may only serve to legitimise UKIP in the eyes of the public, who will see that the party’s age old question has finally been answered. The Prime Minister is playing with fire. It is obvious that any increase in UKIP votes will hit the Tories harder than any other party.

UKIP are not the only problem for the Prime Minister. Indeed he faces a potential fifth column of Eurosceptic backbench MPs. In late 2011 81 Tory MPs defied the Prime Minister and voted for a referendum on Britain’s EU membership. The motion was defeated, but cracks in the party were clear. This then may be the real reason behind the promised referendum - keeping the Conservative Party in one piece. It is unlikely that Cameron’s views on Europe have changed so profoundly in so little time. The Prime Minister knows his party faces an uphill struggle in the next election, and a divided party will only make that task harder.

If the current situation doesn’t change, 2015 is going to be a rough time for the Tories. A YouGov/The Sun poll gave the Conservatives a 32% share of a hypothetical vote, while Labour took 42%. Interestingly the Lib Dems and UKIP were neck and neck on 11% and 8% respectively. Cameron has every reason to be afraid.

What does all this say about the coalition? Both parties have had to compromise since May 2010, the Liberal Democrats arguably more so than the Conservatives. Issues such as tuition fees, AV, House of Lords reform, and boundary changes have already seen the coalition divided, and any referendum on Britain’s position in Europe will be no different. Coupled with the wild swings in policy, of which Cameron’s mixed signals over Europe are a typical example, this does not inspire confidence in the coalition or create an image of a stable government. The Prime Minister is appearing more and more desperate to keep his government together amid poor economic recovery and the rise of Ed Miliband. This referendum is an exercise in party control.

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