For maximum advantage, combine an EU referendum with the next General Election

Nik Darlington 11.29am

A new poll out today from Channel 4 News suggests that 70 per cent of Tory members would vote to leave the EU, and 80 per cent want the party to pledge an in/out referendum at the next general election.

Those figures are not surprising. However, with Conservative party membership running into the mere tens of thousands, hardly a direct representation of general public opinion.

Nonetheless, sections of the media have crafted the impression that the mood of the country is more eurosceptic than not. Polls typically point in favour of holding a referendum. Even the most dogged europhiles have to accept that.

David Cameron earned some kudos from his own party by vetoing a new European treaty last year, but coalition constraints prevent stronger action, while he and his Chancellor have been putting their weight behind saving the euro and encouraging fiscal integration within the eurozone. (Contrary to what certain shysters will have you believe, the Prime Minister knows a total eurozone collapse is not in Britain’s interests.)

So whatever goodwill Mr Cameron briefly received, ordinary Tory members and MPs remain fractious and demanding of more. Not just about Europe, of course, as the Government’s economic policies are heavily in the spotlight too. And the crisis in the eurozone is, though not of our making, very much tied up with our own economic fortunes.

And I have been convinced for some time now that the fractious minority has a point. At least in terms of wanting a referendum, if not necessarily for its reasoning or goals. Irrespective of a rump poll of Tory voters, general sentiment is strong enough for the British public to deserve a referendum.

The Government - or more to the point the Conservative party - has to move quickly to offer one, because the Opposition, aided now by the shrewd John Cruddas (a Little Englander of the left, so to speak), is threatening to offer its own pledge.

So, in the words of one of that fractious minority, “if not now, when?”

The Conservative party has the advantage of incumbency, so it must not waste it. The typical suggestion is that backed by 8 out of 10 party members, namely to pledge a referendum in the 2015 manifesto. It would please four-fifths of the party (what is that roughly, just over 100,000 people?). Few Tories could decry it, at least publicly.

Yet there is another option, one that would satisfy Tory members, the general voting public, electrify political debate and - potentially rather importantly - render UKIP irrelevant.

Hold the referendum on the same day as the next general election. Here are a few reasons why.

  1. If the latest polling is a true demonstration of feeling among Tory troops, it would be a huge motivational boost. It would get canvassers out on to the streets, volunteers into constituency offices and, crucially, otherwise disaffected Tory voters into polling booths. We saw how the AV referendum boosted Tory turnout in the simultaneous local elections. Hold an EU referendum on the same day as a general election and it could have the same effect, only turned up to eleven.
  2. With the political weather vane pointing towards an uphill struggle in 2015, that momentum could make the difference between a Tory win or Labour’s return. Moreover, how would the Labour party campaign? At heart, it is not the blue-and-yellow flag-waving den of europhiles it is often made out to be. After all, Balls and Brown kept us out of the euro. And though I find the notion disingenuous, the huge attention given to a referendum could deflect from the economy, which might still be only barely on the mend. You’d be right to shift uneasily, but that’s the cold truth.
  3. It would go some way to solving the electoral coalition dilemma. Instead of a situation where former colleagues must separate and alternately trash or laud a shared record, the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties could look forward and comfortably fight the next election on more separate, and less shaky, ground. Furthermore, weren’t the Lib Dems the only party to offer an in/out referendum in 2010? Nick Clegg et al could hardly complain.
  4. Why vote UKIP? Why indeed.
  5. Lastly, there is even something in it for europhiles. Citizens tend to vote more thoughtfully/traditionally/safely/sensibly/conservatively (delete as you will) at general election time. Mid-term ballots, such as local government elections, European elections, or by-elections, can throw up odd (even irrational) results. So if you want to stay in the EU, this should be the best time for you too.

The Prime Minister is apparently consulting senior members of the party about whether or not to offer the referendum. If one must be offered - and increasingly it seems as though it must, or indeed should - then it might as well be offered at a time of maximum advantage. That time, in my opinion, is 7th May 2015.

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