The Chancellor emphasises that an EU membership vote would be unwhipped. Photo: Getty
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George Osborne: the EU referendum would be a free vote for Tory backbenchers

The Chancellor says that a vote on Britain's EU membership would be unwhipped for Conservative backbench MPs.

It's a sign of the Tories' enduring problems when the Chancellor says something more notable on EU membership than the economy during Conservative party conference.

This morning, he told the BBC's Today programme that a vote on Britain’s EU membership would be a “free vote” in parliament. He conceded that Tory MPs who want to campaign for Britain to leave the European Union would be free to do so, and to vote Out.

When asked whether or not Conservative backbenchers would be able to campaign for an Out vote in an EU referendum, Osborne said: “Ultimately it will be a free vote. It's a referendum.”

This emphasis on the freedom of conscience for MPs over the EU is no coincidence. With two Tory MPs jumping ship to the anti-EU Ukip, and rumours of more to follow (the Staggers is hearing the names of Chris Kelly and Gordon Henderson), the Tory leadership is looking to keep its eurosceptic members in the fold.

However, it’s unclear whether cabinet ministers would also be allowed a free vote. In the 1975 referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Community, the Prime Minister Harold Wilson decided to suspend collective responsibility because of his cabinet being split on the issue. Cabinet ministers were allowed to vote with their consciences and also to campaign against each other.

David Cameron’s cabinet has its eurosceptics – the Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond being a prominent example – so would this 1975 precedent mean a cabinet tearing each other apart in the event of an EU referendum?

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

Ukip's Nigel Farage and Paul Nuttall. Photo: Getty
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Is the general election 2017 the end of Ukip?

Ukip led the way to Brexit, but now the party is on less than 10 per cent in the polls. 

Ukip could be finished. Ukip has only ever had two MPs, but it held an outside influence on politics: without it, we’d probably never have had the EU referendum. But Brexit has turned Ukip into a single-issue party without an issue. Ukip’s sole remaining MP, Douglas Carswell, left the party in March 2017, and told Sky News’ Adam Boulton that there was “no point” to the party anymore. 

Not everyone in Ukip has given up, though: Nigel Farage told Peston on Sunday that Ukip “will survive”, and current leader Paul Nuttall will be contesting a seat this year. But Ukip is standing in fewer constituencies than last time thanks to a shortage of both money and people. Who benefits if Ukip is finished? It’s likely to be the Tories. 

Is Ukip finished? 

What are Ukip's poll ratings?

Ukip’s poll ratings peaked in June 2016 at 16 per cent. Since the leave campaign’s success, that has steadily declined so that Ukip is going into the 2017 general election on 4 per cent, according to the latest polls. If the polls can be trusted, that’s a serious collapse.

Can Ukip get anymore MPs?

In the 2015 general election Ukip contested nearly every seat and got 13 per cent of the vote, making it the third biggest party (although is only returned one MP). Now Ukip is reportedly struggling to find candidates and could stand in as few as 100 seats. Ukip leader Paul Nuttall will stand in Boston and Skegness, but both ex-leader Nigel Farage and donor Arron Banks have ruled themselves out of running this time.

How many members does Ukip have?

Ukip’s membership declined from 45,994 at the 2015 general election to 39,000 in 2016. That’s a worrying sign for any political party, which relies on grassroots memberships to put in the campaigning legwork.

What does Ukip's decline mean for Labour and the Conservatives? 

The rise of Ukip took votes from both the Conservatives and Labour, with a nationalist message that appealed to disaffected voters from both right and left. But the decline of Ukip only seems to be helping the Conservatives. Stephen Bush has written about how in Wales voting Ukip seems to have been a gateway drug for traditional Labour voters who are now backing the mainstream right; so the voters Ukip took from the Conservatives are reverting to the Conservatives, and the ones they took from Labour are transferring to the Conservatives too.

Ukip might be finished as an electoral force, but its influence on the rest of British politics will be felt for many years yet. 

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