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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle