Would Cameron vote to leave the EU today? He needs an answer

After Gove and Hammond's interventions, the Prime Minister will find it harder to sit on the fence at his press conference with Obama today.

Whether or not they would vote to leave the EU in its present form is rapidly becoming a eurosceptic virility test for Conservative cabinet ministers. After initially hesitating on The Sunday Politics, Philip Hammond followed Michael Gove last night and confirmed that he would vote "out" if a referendum was held today. He told Radio 5 Live's Pienaar’s Politics: "If the choice is between a European Union written exactly as it is today and not being a part of that then I have to say that I'm on the side of the argument that Michael Gove has put forward."

Unsurprisingly, Downing Street is said to regard Gove's intervention as "unhelpful". The Education Secretary's public confirmation of last year's Mail on Sunday report means every cabinet minister can now expect to be asked how they'd vote - and that includes David Cameron. With impeccable timing, the Prime Minister is in Washington today to help negotiate an EU-US trade deal and is holding a press conference with Barack Obama at 4:15pm. If asked whether he would vote to leave the EU today (as he surely will be), Cameron will find himself caught between the europhile US president (who regards Britain's flirtation with withdrawal as a form of madness) and the thought of his eurosceptic backbenchers. The contorted answer he produces should be worth waiting for. 

As for the rest of the cabinet, Tim Montgomerie lists Iain Duncan Smith, Theresa Villiers, Chris Grayling, Justine Greening, Oliver Letwin and Francis Maude as other "definite or probable EU Outers", all of whom, if they wish to maintain the favour of the Tory grassroots, will be tempted to say they'd vote to leave today. 

Gove and Hammond's remarks also revive the question of how the Prime Minister will respond if his renegotiation strategy fails (as europhiles and eurosceptics alike predict it will). Both ministers made it clear that they would only vote to stay in if Britain's terms of membership are substantially reformed. The question that will again be put to Cameron is that which shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander has continually asked: what percentage of your demands do you need to secure to support a Yes vote? 30 per cent, 50 per cent, 80 per cent? The PM's response is to say that no one goes into a negotiation "hoping and expecting to fail" but the pressure will now rise on him to say what would constitute failure. 

Yesterday's events are a reminder of why the referendum, if it ever comes, could lead to the biggest Conservative split since the reform of the Corn Laws. If Cameron's renegotiation attempts are seen to have failed in the eyes of eurosceptics, some ministers will want to vote to leave, while others (including, undoubtedly, Cameron), will want to vote to stay; the cabinet will be split down the middle. 

It's worth recalling how the last (and only) government to hold an EU referendum - Harold Wilson's Labour administration in 1975 - dealt with a comparable problem. With europhiles like Roy Jenkins on one side and eurosceptics like Tony Benn on the other, Wilson took the unprecedented step of suspending collective cabinet responsibility in order to allow his ministers to support either side in the campaign. Seven Labour cabinet ministers - Benn, Barbara Castle, Michael Foot, William Ross, Peter Shore John Silkin, Eric Varley - went on to unsuccessfully argue for withdrawal from the EEC (the vote was 67-33 in favour of membership). If and when the referendum comes, the most elegant way for Cameron to respond to a split party may be to invoke the Wilson precedent.

David Cameron and Barack Obama will give a joint press conference at 4:15pm today. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

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