Why Cameron called it right

Ignore today's headlines, the PM was right to take on his backbenchers over Europe.

Today's headlines are predictably terrible for David Cameron. "Bloody nose for Cameron", "80 Tories humble Cameron" and so on. Most of the left and the right, albeit for different reasons, believe that the Prime Minister blundered badly by imposing a three-line whip on Conservative backbenchers. Even if it is erroneous to compare last night's vote with the Maastricht rebellion, which was over government legislation, this was still the largest ever Conservative rebellion over Europe.

But for several reasons it was Cameron, not his critics, who called this one right. For a start, the likely consequence of allowing a free vote would have been an even larger rebellion. As John Rentoul noted yesterday, the number of rebels could have exceeded 120, a majority of Tory backbenchers. Today's headlines would have been even worse for the PM.

By refusing to vote in favour of an EU referendum, Cameron has also demonstrated that he has a better grasp of public opinion than his right-wing opponents. British voters might be the most eurosceptic in the EU (54 per cent believe that the UK has "not benefited" from its membership of the EU, more than in any other country) but they are not obsessed with the subject.

Polling by Ipsos-MORI shows that less than half a per cent of voters believe that Europe is the most important issue facing Britain today. When asked to select "other important issues" this figure rises to just 3 per cent. For this reason, Cameron was right to tell his party in 2006 that it had to stop "banging on about Europe". Voters might have shared William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith's euroscepticism but they didn't share their fixation with the subject. They were more interested in hearing how the Tories would improve the NHS than how they would repatriate employment powers from Brussels. True, 70 per cent of voters want a referendum on EU membership, but then the polls invariably show majority support for a referendum on any subject. A long debate over EU membership would have seemed eccentric at a time when there are 2.57m people unemployed and the economy is flat-lining.

Cameron should not be absolved of blame for the rebellion. He pandered to the euro fanatics in his party by withdrawing the Tories from the mainstream European People's Party and forging a sinister alliance with the nationalist right. His aloof and haughty style has alienated many backbenchers. But today my (admittedly low) admiration for him has grown. He has shown that he is prepared to adopt a position - that a referendum on EU membership is not in Britain's interests - and stick to it. It is he, not his opponents, who has demonstrated political strength.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Voters are turning against Brexit but the Lib Dems aren't benefiting

Labour's pro-Brexit stance is not preventing it from winning the support of Remainers. Will that change?

More than a year after the UK voted for Brexit, there has been little sign of buyer's remorse. The public, including around a third of Remainers, are largely of the view that the government should "get on with it".

But as real wages are squeezed (owing to the Brexit-linked inflationary spike) there are tentative signs that the mood is changing. In the event of a second referendum, an Opinium/Observer poll found, 47 per cent would vote Remain, compared to 44 per cent for Leave. Support for a repeat vote is also increasing. Forty one per cent of the public now favour a second referendum (with 48 per cent opposed), compared to 33 per cent last December. 

The Liberal Democrats have made halting Brexit their raison d'être. But as public opinion turns, there is no sign they are benefiting. Since the election, Vince Cable's party has yet to exceed single figures in the polls, scoring a lowly 6 per cent in the Opinium survey (down from 7.4 per cent at the election). 

What accounts for this disparity? After their near-extinction in 2015, the Lib Dems remain either toxic or irrelevant to many voters. Labour, by contrast, despite its pro-Brexit stance, has hoovered up Remainers (55 per cent back Jeremy Corbyn's party). 

In some cases, this reflects voters' other priorities. Remainers are prepared to support Labour on account of the party's stances on austerity, housing and education. Corbyn, meanwhile, is a eurosceptic whose internationalism and pro-migration reputation endear him to EU supporters. Other Remainers rewarded Labour MPs who voted against Article 50, rebelling against the leadership's stance. 

But the trend also partly reflects ignorance. By saying little on the subject of Brexit, Corbyn and Labour allowed Remainers to assume the best. Though there is little evidence that voters will abandon Corbyn over his EU stance, the potential exists.

For this reason, the proposal of a new party will continue to recur. By challenging Labour over Brexit, without the toxicity of Lib Dems, it would sharpen the choice before voters. Though it would not win an election, a new party could force Corbyn to soften his stance on Brexit or to offer a second referendum (mirroring Ukip's effect on the Conservatives).

The greatest problem for the project is that it lacks support where it counts: among MPs. For reasons of tribalism and strategy, there is no emergent "Gang of Four" ready to helm a new party. In the absence of a new convulsion, the UK may turn against Brexit without the anti-Brexiteers benefiting. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.