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The EU referendum vote: The leadership's behaviour will not sit well with the mainstream Eurosceptics

    Lewis James Brown (@LewisCPS), Web 2.0 Manager of the Centre for Policy Studies, blogs on the impact of yesterday's vote, and the perception it creates, on the electorate.

    Today we cross-posted an excellent article from Professor Philip Cowley and Mark Stuart on 10 points of note from yesterday’s ‘rebellion’ of Conservative MPs over the EU referendum. One point in particular interested me:


    “We have some sympathy with those who argue that the government should have made this a free or semi-free vote, and allowed MPs to let off steam, rather than whip it. But that was hardly a pain-free option.How big would the pro-referendum vote have been in that case? 100? 150? 200? Does anyone really think that having rallied, say, 150 MPs to his cause, David Nuttall would have decided that he’d had his fun and then kept schtum about the issue for the next few years? If the whip had been relaxed, then all of today’s headlines would be about how almost the entire backbench had told Cameron where to go, and all those writing pieces about how the Prime Minister had mishandled the affair would merely be writing different pieces on how he had mishandled the affair.”

    This interested me because I tended to agree with Fraser Nelson’sSpectator article on Sunday that David Cameron should have simply let this vote pass without incident.


    As I have blogged previously, UKIP - despite continuing poor showings in national and local elections – has arrived as a force in elections to the European parliament, an issue where a large portion of the electorate are not only bringing Euroscepticism into the mainstream, but also fed up with Conservative performance on the issue. Having previously turned to the Tories to be the Eurosceptic party, some are deserting them for UKIP; many more still in the poll for the EU Parliament (and from all parties it must be said).


    It is true that Europe does not rank high up the list of concerns for voters – but this fact is used to misrepresent those same voter’s true feelings on the issue. Yes, to vote for a candidate to run the economy, the NHS or your local bin collections with Europe in mind as the sole issue might be a little ‘barking’. But when it comes to EU elections, where a verdict is passed on the EU first and foremost, almost half of voters and well over half the seats went to either the Conservatives or UKIP. Despite it not dominating voter’s top concerns, it is still something they want a say on: The Guardian reporting that 70% would welcome the referendum, with 49% saying they would vote to leave the Union.


    It is this strength of opinion that the real pain from yesterday’s vote will come. The story of ‘rebellion’ and split is being greatly exaggerated by an over-anxious media salivating for the return of 1995-era coverage of the Conservative Party. The majority of MPs will know that a referendum on the EU is not a major concern when considered next to the deficit or the Eurozone crisis, but then would that not also rule out sales of tickets at sporting events, Master’s degrees, the West Lothian question and Car Insurance in Northern Ireland – all debated by Parliament last week? Most, like the electorate, were expressing how they feel on an issue that is lower down the order to them.


    Where David Cameron has really missed a trick is with the voters who will now neither trust him or the Conservative Party to represent them on the European issue. If they cannot trust them on one issue, surely this extends to all? And when the profile of that issue is raised to the extreme as the handling of yesterday’s vote was, this can only impact further on the level of distrust.


    The Conservatives have missed an opportunity to say to their voters (and potential voters) we share your concerns on Europe; and we have voted for them today. The outcome would have been non-binding and impossible under the current coalition, but would have allowed the Conservative leadership to retain the Eurosceptic badge going into 2014 (and more importantly 2015), also committing themselves to a referendum in the event of a failure to renegotiate our relationship with the Union (which as stated policy should continue regardless of a referendum and was an unnecessary option). It would have also been a parallel for the Tory leadership of the Lib Dem policy of demarcating themselves from their coalition partners while still in government – a vote that ultimately meant nothing but satisfied the upset Tory Right.


    Nigel Farage has already stated he believes UKIP will win the next EU election. David Cameron‘s party machine ensured it did everything it could last night to make this a reality. If UKIP won a national poll, they could legitimately claim a place in the leader’s debates the following year. If that happens, well, look no further than Boris Johnson or Alex Salmond for the power of charismatic personality politics.


    Yesterday’s handling of the vote has been said to have backfired for many reasons but I cannot see one more glaringly obvious than this for all three major parties who whipped their MPs and believe in making the European case to different degrees: such a high profile attempted denial of debate and MPs freedom can only serve to harden anti-EU sentiment amongst the Eurosceptic public, and possibly win new converts too.

    Lewis joined the Centre for Policy Studies in April 2011 with responsibility for social media and digital engagement.

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