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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When Ed Balls has George Osborne running for cover, the Coalition should really start to worry

Nik Darlington 7.55am

When in opposition, the Conservative party was entirely right, politically speaking, to back the Labour Government’s spending plans.

Roles now reversed, the Labour party would be entirely right, politically speaking, to back the coalition government’s spending cuts. Many in the Labour party might believe this to be anathema, much like many in the Conservative party were aghast at George Osborne’s decision to ape, for a time, Gordon Brown’s fiscal diarrhoea.

But they miss the point, in favour of the principle. And on this precise point, principle is a luxury Labour cannot afford. Until the Labour party has a credible answer to questions about what they would cut themselves, for instance, they remain irrelevant to the only debate that will matter in 2015, namely the economy.

The recent upturn in Labour’s fortunes - driven largely by a more relaxed and self-confident Ed Miliband - has seen their building record poll leads, and their leader nudging ahead of the Prime Minister in (un)popularity stakes. The most important sign of Labour’s recovery, however, is that the party is closing the gap on economic competence.

Above all, this is a sign of the voters taking a verdict on the Government’s perceived economic incompetence. It cannot be a verdict on the Labour party’s economic strategy, because that party hasn’t got one.

Yet. Some in the Government have said it is a surprise that the polling has taken this long to get this bad, considering the policies they are having to pursue. That may be true, but people have maintained their trust in the painful but necessary economic path the Government has set out.

But that painful economic path has barely been pursued. Many ‘cuts’ (in reality, cuts in the increase in public spending) have been backloaded to the second half of this Parliament. Could this turn out to be a strategic error of the tallest order?

There are seemingly irreconcilable ideological differences between Ed Balls and Ed Miliband, which could get in the way of Labour crafting a credibly alternative economic strategy. Nevertheless, recent policy appointments, such as Andrew Adonis and John Cruddas, demonstrate a bold intent to craft a policy platform that mixes the traditional and the new in the Labour movement.

If the end result is that Ed Balls has George Osborne running for cover on economic issues, the Government should really start to worry.

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PMQs review: Score draw but the Prime Minister’s arsenal is worryingly bare

Jack Blackburn 2.08pm

The Government’s fortunes and the composure of its ministers have crumbled over recent months, though it is worth noting that the Leader of the Opposition’s polling numbers have still not managed to match his party’s.

So as we arrived at the first PMQs since April we found a leadership vacuum, created by a Government in disarray, a Prime Minister under pressure from all sides, and a Labour party leader seemingly unable to act like a leader.

This PMQs also took place in a very different context to the last. Disastrous local election results (London’s Mayor aside) for the Coalition parties still sting. The national economy seems to have tumbled into a double-dip recession. We are being badly buffeted by continuing turmoil in the Eurozone, where an anti-austerity Frenchman has just taken up residence in the Élysée palace and Greece is crippled by political upheaval.

To use a recent (and for me painful) sporting illustration, the leaders were level on points going into today’s match, with Mr Miliband ahead on goal difference. This was a mid-term fixture rather than an end-of-season cliff-hanger, but it as was scrappy, messy and confused as the Premier League’s climax, if nowhere near as exciting too.

Mr Miliband has plenty of arsenal at his disposal at the moment. Dreadful growth figures, unhappy nurses, protesting police officers, the controversial Leveson Inquiry, electoral reverses and the seemingly changing political breeze in Europe should have meant that Mr Cameron was in for a torrid time at the Despatch Box. Nevertheless, there was a crumb of comfort for the Prime Minister today in the form of falling unemployment.

Mr Cameron began by using this to his advantage, welcoming a question from his own backbenches, but stressing (as all the Cabinet has done this morning) that the Government is not complacent. There is more to be done. Etcetera. And for once, Mr Miliband also welcomed good economic news, but was quick to try to press home some advantage by questioning what discussions the PM had taken part in with President Hollande about growth plans for France and Europe.

The answer could have simply been, “Well, haven’t really spoken to him since he was elected.” So Edward suggested a text message with “LOL” in it would probably be sufficient. Uncharacteristically funny, and well delivered.

In fact, Mr Miliband’s entire style of performance has improved immensely. He is calm, considered and no longer whiny. Nonetheless, Mr Cameron remains an adept performer himself, and responded strongly: “I may well have used my mobile phone too much, but at least as Prime Minister I know how to use one rather than just throw it at those who work with me”. The Rt Hon Member for Kirkcaldy was, as usual, nowhere to be seen.

Mr Miliband was indeed more impressive today, though still blew it by failing once again to capitalise effectively on the Prime Minister’s all-too-evident woes. He left the economy debate too quickly, so eager was he to cram in questions on policing and nurses, while also failing to pose a question on his sixth time of coming. The eyes were bigger than his abilities.

Yet Mr Cameron also fumbled the ball today, particularly with his final response to his opponent, when he attempted to criticise Labour’s new policy supremo John Cruddas as someone too close to the trades unions. At moments such as those, one realises just how little ammunition the Prime Minister has at his disposal.