Losing an EU referendum vote in parliament is part of the Tory plan

MPs just want Cameron to prove he means business (and that the Lib Dems don't).

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.

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

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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Ken Livingstone says publicly what many are saying privately: tomorrow belongs to John McDonnell

The Shadow Chancellor has emerged as a frontrunner should another Labour leadership election happen. 

“It would be John.” Ken Livingstone, one of Jeremy Corbyn’s most vocal allies in the media, has said publicly what many are saying privately: if something does happen to Corbyn, or should he choose to step down, place your bets on John McDonnell. Livingstone, speaking to Russia Today, said that if Corbyn were "pushed under a bus", John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, would be the preferred candidate to replace him.

Even among the Labour leader’s allies, speculation is rife as to if the Islington North MP will lead the party into the 2020 election. Corbyn would be 71 in 2020 – the oldest candidate for Prime Minister since Clement Attlee lost the 1955 election aged 72.

While Corbyn is said to be enjoying the role at present, he still resents the intrusion of much of the press and dislikes many of the duties of the party leader. McDonnell, however, has impressed even some critics with his increasingly polished TV performances and has wowed a few sceptical donors. One big donor, who was thinking of pulling their money, confided that a one-on-one chat with the shadow chancellor had left them feeling much happier than a similar chat with Ed Miliband.

The issue of the succession is widely discussed on the left. For many, having waited decades to achieve a position of power, pinning their hopes on the health of one man would be unforgivably foolish. One historically-minded trade union official points out that Hugh Gaitskell, at 56, and John Smith, at 55, were 10 and 11 years younger than Corbyn when they died. In 1994, the right was ready and had two natural successors in the shape of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in place. In 1963, the right was unprepared and lost the leadership to Harold Wilson, from the party's centre. "If something happens, or he just decides to call it a day, [we have to make sure] it will be '94 not '63," they observed.

While McDonnell is just two years younger than Corbyn, his closest ally in politics and a close personal friend, he is seen by some as considerably more vigorous. His increasingly frequent outings on television have seen him emerge as one of the most adept media performers from the Labour left, and he has won internal plaudits for his recent tussles with George Osborne over the tax bill.

The left’s hopes of securing a non-Corbyn candidate on the ballot have been boosted in recent weeks. The parliamentary Labour party’s successful attempt to boot Steve Rotheram off the party’s ruling NEC, while superficially a victory for the party’s Corbynsceptics, revealed that the numbers are still there for a candidate of the left to make the ballot. 30 MPs voted to keep Rotheram in place, with many MPs from the left of the party, including McDonnell, Corbyn, Diane Abbott and John Trickett, abstaining.

The ballot threshold has risen due to a little-noticed rule change, agreed over the summer, to give members of the European Parliament equal rights with members of the Westminster Parliament. However, Labour’s MEPs are more leftwing, on the whole, than the party in Westminster . In addition, party members vote on the order that Labour MEPs appear on the party list, increasing (or decreasing) their chances of being re-elected, making them more likely to be susceptible to an organised campaign to secure a place for a leftwinger on the ballot.

That makes it – in the views of many key players – incredibly likely that the necessary 51 nominations to secure a place on the ballot are well within reach for the left, particularly if by-election selections in Ogmore, where the sitting MP, is standing down to run for the Welsh Assembly, and Sheffield Brightside, where Harry Harpham has died, return candidates from the party’s left.

McDonnell’s rivals on the left of the party are believed to have fallen short for one reason or another. Clive Lewis, who many party activists believe could provide Corbynism without the historical baggage of the man himself, is unlikely to be able to secure the nominations necessary to make the ballot.

Any left candidate’s route to the ballot paper runs through the 2015 intake, who are on the whole more leftwing than their predecessors. But Lewis has alienated many of his potential allies, with his antics in the 2015 intake’s WhatsApp group a sore point for many. “He has brought too much politics into it,” complained one MP who is also on the left of the party. (The group is usually used for blowing off steam and arranging social events.)

Lisa Nandy, who is from the soft left rather than the left of the party, is widely believed to be in the running also, despite her ruling out any leadership ambitions in a recent interview with the New Statesman.However, she would represent a break from the Corbynite approach, albeit a more leftwing one than Dan Jarvis or Hilary Benn.

Local party chairs in no doubt that the shadow chancellor is profiling should another leadership election arise. One constituency chair noted to the New Statesman that: “you could tell who was going for it [last time], because they were desperate to speak [at events]”. Tom Watson, Caroline Flint, Chuka Umunna, Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham and Liz Kendall all visited local parties across the country in preparation for their election bids in 2015.

Now, speaking to local party activists, four names are mentioned more than any other: Dan Jarvis, currently on the backbenches, but in whom the hopes – and the donations – of many who are disillusioned by the current leadership are invested, Gloria De Piero, who is touring the country as part of the party’s voter registration drive, her close ally Jon Ashworth, and John McDonnell.

Another close ally of Corbyn and McDonnell, who worked closely on the leadership election, is in no doubt that the shadow chancellor is gearing up for a run should the need arise.  “You remember when that nice Mr Watson went touring the country? Well, pay attention to John’s movements.”

As for his chances of success, McDonnell may well be even more popular among members than Corbyn himself. He is regularly at or near the top of LabourList's shadow cabinet rankings, and is frequently praised by members. Should he be able to secure the nominations to get on the ballot, an even bigger victory than that secured by Corbyn in September is not out of the question.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.