Cameron promises: no more EU U-turns

The PM insists that the date of the referendum "isn't going to change". But will Tory MPs allow him to keep his word?

After one of his most difficult weeks since becoming prime minister, David Cameron put in a polished and assured peformance on the Today programme this morning. The most notable line came on Europe, with Cameron declaring, "It doesn't matter the pressure I come under from Europe, or inside the Tory party, this policy isn’t going to change. The date by which we hold this referendum isn't going to change." That was a clear signal to Tory MPs that any demands for a "mandate" referendum or for an early vote on Britain's EU membership will be rejected. But having capitulated so many times before, first by promising to hold an in/out referendum and then by drafting a bill to enshrine it in law, it is an open question whether Cameron will prevail on this occasion. Here, for instance, is what he said about a referendum in October 2011: "It's not the right time, at this moment of economic crisis, to launch legislation that includes an in-out referendum. This is not the time to argue about walking away."

On gay marriage, having largely remained silent on the issue all week, Cameron finally took the opportunity to make a passionate conservative case for the policy. "I think it's important that we have this degree of equality and I say that as someone who's a massive supporter of marriage," he said. He spoke of "young boys in schools today, who are gay, and who are worried are about being bullied" who  would see that "the highest parliament in the land has said that their love is worth as much as anyone else's and they'll stand that little bit taller today." 

After recent speculation that the Tories are planning for an early divorce from the Lib Dems, Cameron said that it was "absolutely" his "intention" for the coalition to remain in place "right up until polling day". 

More broadly, he used the interview to hammer home what will be the Tories' message up until the general election, that they are "fixing the economy, reforming welfare and delivering more good schools". If Cameron can maintain that focus, he still has a chance of winning the next election. The question now is whether his party will allow him to do so. 

David Cameron speaks at a press conference at the EU headquarters on February 8, 2013 in Brussels. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

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

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