Most of this morning’s newspapers report that David Cameron is inching towards another significant European concession to his back benches. No 10 is said to be looking carefully at the prospect of an "enabling bill" paving the way for a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union. That means, in effect, a vote in the Commons this side of an election underpinning Cameron’s pledge to hold a national vote some time in the next parliament.
Last month around 100 Tory MPs wrote to the Prime Minister calling for just such a move. Some ministers are said to look on the gambit favourably and in a radio interview yesterday, Cameron indicated fairly clearly that it is on his agenda. Specifically, he said the Tories should be prepared to do "anything we can to strengthen the offer."
Cameron’s critics will portray this as a classic capitulation to the right – an entirely predictable lurch deeper into Europhobic territory driven by panic at the prospect of UKIP surging in today’s county council elections. It will confirm the suspicion that Tory eurosceptics are never satisfied. They bank whatever they are given and come back for more, dragging Cameron away from the kind of centrist politics that will win. It is a fairly well-rehearsed argument.
Plainly UKIP’s feasting on stray Tory votes is a lead factor in Cameron’s thinking. But it is worth noting that the pressure for an EU bill isn’t only coming from the hard right of the party. I have spoken to Tory MPs of the modernising tendency – the wettest, most cosmopolitan, liberal fringe – who have urged Cameron to make this move.
Why? Partly it just expresses the fact that the parliamentary Tory party is more or less eurosceptic from top to toe. But more than that, it says something revealing about the awareness Tory MPs have of a critical weakness in their leader’s image. Even those MPs who don’t feel that passionately about an EU referendum recognise that the offer is necessary to shore up a flank against UKIP and they have realised that Cameron’s words alone are a debauched currency. The hope was that his big speech earlier in the year would do the job. It didn’t. The reason, Tory MPs privately admit, is that for most voters, UKIP-leaning ones in particular, speeches, pledges, promises, vows, oaths and "cast-iron guarantees" aren’t enough. No politician who has been on the front line for as long as Cameron can get away with a doe-eyed "trust me on this one, guys" and the Conservative leader has a greater problem with perceived slipperiness than most.
Most Conservative MPs aren’t so naïve as to think that beefing up a referendum pledge with a largely symbolic vote in parliament will stop the Farage insurgency. But they don’t want to go out on the doorstep in the run-up to next year’s European elections armed with only a "David Cameron promise." I’m told by one Tory that this only makes things worse. I’ve also been told that at least one local Conservative party is adopting a kind of purple ticket strategy for would-be UKIP voters in the MEP ballot. They know they are going to be thrashed in June 2014 and don’t want to needlessly aggravate members and supporters, so are saying, in effect, "go on then, have some fun with UKIP in the European elections, just as long as you come back to us for the general election." I suspect there is also quite a lot of don’t-ask-don’t-tell in Conservative associations with regard to voting UKIP in today’s county council polls too.
One other crucial point on the referendum "enabling bill" - it is seen by many Tories as the effective end of the current coalition. They know the Lib Dems won’t go for it, or will try to amend the life out of it, and they don’t care. There is enough confidence that public opinion is on their side that confecting a bust-up with the Cleggites fairly close to a general election would be no bad thing. The argument that MPs are putting to Cameron is that this is a win-win proposition. If the bill succeeds, because Labour or the Lib Dems feel they daren’t oppose it, the Prime Minister has shown great leadership. And if the bill is defeated, it just reinforces the message that coalition is slowing down the business of rescuing Britain from the forces of economic strangulation, that the Lib Dems are now part of the problem not the solution and that what is really needed to unleash national enterprise is a Conservative majority. (That may be a delusion, but it is a popular theory on the Tory benches.)
The very fact that Conservatives are thinking along these lines suggests that, once the June spending review is out of the way, there won’t be any more big joint coalition decisions. The Tories no longer seem so bothered by the prospect of Lib Dems blocking their plans if the ensuing row can be used as a platform to advertise their policies. That is one of intriguing things about the discussion of an EU referendum bill. Cameron might look at the parliamentary arithmetic, calculate that he’d lose a vote – and do it anyway just to make a point.