Despite growing evidence that the Tories would gain most from the adoption of the Alternative Vote (AV), most Conservative MPs remain unambiguously opposed to reform.
A significant number view the decision to hold the referendum on 5 May 2011, the same day as the Scottish, Welsh and local elections, as confirmation that David Cameron privately supports AV.
The belief here is that holding the referendum on this day will aid the reformist cause, as Scotland and Wales currently employ a form of proportional representation (the additional member system).
Now comes news that an unholy alliance of Tory and Labour MPs is attempting to change the date of the referendum, with the Tories also pushing for a minimum turnout threshold. The Scottish Labour backbencher Thomas Docherty is planning to table an amendment to change the date, and has already won the support of rebel Tory MPs.
Meanwhile, the Tory MP Bernard Jenkin, the man appointed by the 1922 Committee to negotiate with ministers over the referendum, is preparing to publish two early-day motions calling for a change of date and a turnout threshold of roughly 40 per cent.
EDMs are rarely debated on the floor of the House and make little political impact but, according to ConservativeHome’s Paul Goodman, the Tory whips are already doing all they can to block the motion. He writes:
I gather from a furious member of the new intake that this one has seriously disturbed the whips — who are trying to get MPs who’ve signed the EDM to remove their signature before it’s tabled.
On this occasion, it looks like the whips are right to worry. The Scotsman reports that Jenkin has already garnered a list of more than 100 signatures, including several former ministers. One Tory backbencher remarked: “This was not the usual suspects: there were names there which made you think this was a serious proposition.”
The timing of the referendum could yet have a decisive influence on the result. The most recent poll on the subject found that support for AV stood at 39 per cent, just a point ahead of first-past-the-post on 38 per cent. Either way, the tensions between those Tories who oppose reform and those (within Cameron’s circle) who tacitly support it are only likely to grow in the coming months.