Cameron picks a fight with his party on Europe

Tory MPs will be ordered to vote against holding a referendum on EU membership.

It is an iron law of British politics that Europe will always divide the Conservative Party. Despite his status as a natural eurosceptic, David Cameron is planning to pick a fight with his own party by ordering Tory MPs to vote against holding a referendum on Britain's EU membership. The Commons is set to debate the subject next Thursday and the expectation among many Conservatives was that, as in the case of the vote on prisoners' rights, Cameron would grant backbenchers a free vote. But a report in today's Telegraph suggests that he will instead impose a three-line whip.

For a sense of the political danger involved, note that 46 Tory MPs (out of 58 MPs from all parties) have already signed the motion.

Cameron has always opposed an in/out referendum on the EU but the motion also includes a third option: for the UK to "re-negotiate the terms of its membership in order to create a new relationship based on trade and co-operation." Here's the full text:

The House calls upon the Government to introduce a Bill in the next session of Parliament to provide for the holding of a national referendum on whether the United Kingdom

(a) should remain a member of the European Union on the current terms;

(b) leave the European Union; or

(c) re-negotiate the terms of its membership in order to create a new relationship based on trade and co-operation.

In the eyes of the Tories, Cameron is allowing a good crisis to go to waste. He would do well to heed Tim Montgomerie's warning:

If Britain's relationship with the EU is fundamentally the same after five years of Conservative government the internal divisions that ended the last Tory period in government will look like a tea party in comparison.

But that's not the only headache afflicting the Prime Minister this morning. Boris, who never misses an opportunity to put some clear blue water between himself and Cameron, has been up to his old tricks again, declaring at a press gallery lunch that it would be "absolutely crazy" to respond to the eurozone crisis by accelerating progress towards a fiscal union. The main advocate of such a course of action? Boris's rival George Osborne, of course. In recent weeks, the Chancellor has continually spoken of the need for eurozone countries to accept the "remorseless logic" of monetary union leading to greater fiscal union. Boris's response? "I really can't see for the life of me how that is going to work."

As an aside, it's worth posing the question: where does Labour stand on all of this? There are some in the party, most notably Ed Balls (who rightly boasts of his role in saving the pound), who would like Labour to adopt a more sceptical stance. In July, shadow Treasury minister Chris Leslie led Labour MPs into the no lobby during a vote on bailout funding and reduced the government's majority to just 28 - the smallest of this parliament.

Five Labour MPs, including Frank Field, Kate Hoey and Keith Vaz, have signed the motion so far and more are likely to follow. There has always been a eurosceptic tendency in Labour - many on the left view the EU as a capitalist club - and, with the Tories divided, there's every incentive to cause mischief. But shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander, a proud multilateralist, is determined to resist any move to rebrand Labour as a eurosceptic party. Labour must not undermine the argument that global problems require global solutions, he says. As the eurozone crisis enters its endgame, Ed Miliband faces a critical political choice.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.