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

Photo: Getty
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Like it or hate it, it doesn't matter: Brexit is happening, and we've got to make a success of it

It's time to stop complaining and start campaigning, says Stella Creasy.

A shortage of Marmite, arguments over exporting jam and angry Belgians. And that’s just this month.  As the Canadian trade deal stalls, and the government decides which cottage industry its will pick next as saviour for the nation, the British people are still no clearer getting an answer to what Brexit actually means. And they are also no clearer as to how they can have a say in how that question is answered.

To date there have been three stages to Brexit. The first was ideological: an ever-rising euroscepticism, rooted in a feeling that the costs the compromises working with others require were not comparable to the benefits. It oozed out, almost unnoticed, from its dormant home deep in the Labour left and the Tory right, stoked by Ukip to devastating effect.

The second stage was the campaign of that referendum itself: a focus on immigration over-riding a wider debate about free trade, and underpinned by the tempting and vague claim that, in an unstable, unfair world, control could be taken back. With any deal dependent on the agreement of twenty eight other countries, it has already proved a hollow victory.

For the last few months, these consequences of these two stages have dominated discussion, generating heat, but not light about what happens next. Neither has anything helped to bring back together those who feel their lives are increasingly at the mercy of a political and economic elite and those who fear Britain is retreating from being a world leader to a back water.

Little wonder the analogy most commonly and easily reached for by commentators has been that of a divorce. They speculate our coming separation from our EU partners is going to be messy, combative and rancorous. Trash talk from some - including those in charge of negotiating -  further feeds this perception. That’s why it is time for all sides to push onto Brexit part three: the practical stage. How and when is it actually going to happen?

A more constructive framework to use than marriage is one of a changing business, rather than a changing relationship. Whatever the solid economic benefits of EU membership, the British people decided the social and democratic costs had become too great. So now we must adapt.

Brexit should be as much about innovating in what we make and create as it is about seeking to renew our trading deals with the world. New products must be sought alongside new markets. This doesn’t have to mean cutting corners or cutting jobs, but it does mean being prepared to learn new skills and invest in helping those in industries that are struggling to make this leap to move on. The UK has an incredible and varied set of services and products to offer the world, but will need to focus on what we do well and uniquely here to thrive. This is easier said than done, but can also offer hope. Specialising and skilling up also means we can resist those who want us to jettison hard-won environmental and social protections as an alternative. 

Most accept such a transition will take time. But what is contested is that it will require openness. However, handing the public a done deal - however well mediated - will do little to address the division within our country. Ensuring the best deal in a way that can garner the public support it needs to work requires strong feedback channels. That is why transparency about the government's plans for Brexit is so important. Of course, a balance needs to be struck with the need to protect negotiating positions, but scrutiny by parliament- and by extension the public- will be vital. With so many differing factors at stake and choices to be made, MPs have to be able and willing to bring their constituents into the discussion not just about what Brexit actually entails, but also what kind of country Britain will be during and after the result - and their role in making it happen. 

Those who want to claim the engagement of parliament and the public undermines the referendum result are still in stages one and two of this debate, looking for someone to blame for past injustices, not building a better future for all. Our Marmite may be safe for the moment, but Brexit can’t remain a love it or hate it phenomenon. It’s time for everyone to get practical.