DAVOS/SWITZERLAND, 29JAN10 - David Cameron, Le...

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The Telegraph is reporting that Prime Minister David Cameron may very well whip [1] his party against voting for the prospective vote in the House of Commons on whether or not to hold a Referendum on membership of the European Union.

This means that MPs would be forced to vote against the prospect of a referendum. Already we are seeing the prospect of rebellion.

While the vote would not be binding, Cameron has previously stated he is against any prospect of a referendum – having such a referendum on record for him may be problematic when trying to renegotiate, or quell rebellions within the party.

This definitely sets the leader of the Conservatives against large parts of his own party. The informal meeting of Eurosceptic Tory MPs gathered around 120 attendants, and was permitted by William Hague, the foreign secretary, and the party whips. While I’m not assuming that many will rebel against the three-line whip (frankly, more will be concerned with advancement than setting themselves against the Cameroons), it will still present large problems for Cameron in controlling the rest.

This isn’t to say the rebellion won’t be substantial. While party whips have predicted a rebellion of around 30-40 MPs, we have already seen 46 of them signing the motion. There will be more.

Cameron should also be worried about his party’s footsoldiers. As found on twitter…

 Perhaps the Tories will see a drift of members and voters to UKIP come next election? While not enough, I doubt, to get UKIP any MPs, it could act more similarly to the Labour-LibDem-Green division of voters amongst the centre-left.

Thinking of them, what OF the other parties? According to the Liberal Democrat manifesto of 2010

Liberal Democrats therefore remain committed to an in/out referendum the next time a British government signs up for fundamental change in the relationship between the UK and the EU.

 Such a change has not taken place, and thus the Liberal Democrats are not obligated to vote in favour of a referendum.

The Coalition Agreement between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats makes no mention of the referendum, and says

The Government believes that Britain should play a leading role in an enlarged European Union, but that no further powers should be transferred to Brussels without a referendum. This approach strikes the right balance between constructive engagement with the EU to deal with the issues that affect us all, and protecting our national sovereignty

The Labour manifesto, to my knowledge, makes no mention of repatriation of powers, or a manifesto.

Having said that, not all the 58MPs who have already signed the motion are Tories. While the DUP (the Democratic Unionist Party) all seem to be coming out in favour of the motion (I wonder how this will affect their relationship with the Cameroons and the larger Tory party…) there are some Labour names – Kate Hoey, Keith Vaz, Frank Field, Kelvin Hopkins and Austin Mitchell.

Thus, it is doubtful that any rebellion would get a majority -Labour backbenchers are not very active on this, though I would expect to see several MPs vote in favour – maybe less if Miliband also whips. The Lib Dems will probably vote against, though this could cause image-perception problems – we are already seen as too Europhillic, and need to be more eurocritical and euro-reformist. Maybe, if the vote seems to be a relative landslide against the motion, several LibDems should “rebel”, to start to solve this?


What does Cameron need to do?

Firstly, a promise to hold a referendum on in/renegotiation may well draw attention away from the “Out” option he and Britain should be so desperate to avoid. He can claim various reasons for this.

Secondly, as this post on the Spectator posits, an alternative amendment claiming that the government should seek repatriation of powers may well quell the rebellion.

Thirdly, the Spectator also argues that a committment to renogitation in the next manifesto and a referendum on the basis of that may quell the rebellion – may not be the best option for Europhiles though, as we will have no further renegotiation to make if it comes to it.

Finally- reassure his own backbenchers. I have the impression that much of this rhetoric is hot-wind in order to protect their own backsides from their eurosceptic constituents and the “UKIP fringe” of the Tory party.

 With the border changes, razor-thin majorities and a large new intake of MPs, they are running scared of keeping their own seats. Maybe that’s all this is.


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[1] For those living in countries with more proportional systems, when a party is “whipped” on a vote in the House of Commons, all members of that party’s lobby are obligated to vote in that way (in brief).

It is a by-product of having a system of First-Past-The-Post voting – since it is a matter of whoever gets the most votes takes the seat, regardless of whether they get 50% support or not, we saw most of British political history being a two-party system (only in the last few decades has this changed). With a two-party system, each party is representative of very broad political opinions. Labour contains Social Democrats, Democratic Socialists, Socialists, Communists, and more… the Conservatives contain Christian conservatives and secular, economic liberals, protectionists, some social liberals, and some social conservatives…

Because of these mixed beliefs, it’s sometimes, apparently, necessary to force the party to vote in a certain way. Hence, whipping. Certain MPs are designated as party whips and have to convincve the party to vote in that way. A Three-Line whip is the strongest whip possible, and makes it a mandatory requirement.

Update :- Following Prime Minister’s Questions, it may be that Cameron is indeed moving towards a manifesto promise of renegotiation and referendum, and may be shying away from the three-line whip “nuclear” option.