David Cameron promised a referendum on leaving the European Union (EU) last week.
He said that if elected in 2015, he will legislate for a poll by 2018.
On the surface the announcement looks like a vote winner—but it risks splitting the Tories down the middle.
Cameron complained of too many EU rules. He meant the weak legislation on maximum working hours, on detention without trial and against discrimination.
This is a bid to outflank the far right Ukip, pacify dozy Tories in the shires and save him from defeat at the next election.
But by offering the referendum in 2018—if he wins in 2015 and renegotiates Britain’s membership—he shows up the indecision and division among the elite.
Cameron’s speech, made to a group of business bosses in London, was a U-turn. He had previously claimed to be against any such referendum.
“Congratulations to the Prime Minister on becoming the 82nd Tory rebel. We’re all in this together!” tweeted Tory MP Mark Pritchard.
In October 2011 some 81 Tory MPs broke ranks with the government to push for a referendum. Cameron needs to keep these rebels on side.
But it was not the backbench backwoodsmen who have pushed him into a referendum on Europe.
When John Major was in power he referred to eurosceptics in his government as the “bastards”.
The reality is that the bastards have been running the Tory party for some time. The cabinet is overtly eurosceptic—and so is Cameron himself.
Education secretary Michael Gove was one of the first to argue that Brussels should be presented with the ultimatum that it must reform or Britain would leave.
Environment secretary Owen Paterson and work and pensions
secretary Iain Duncan Smith are diehard anti-Europeans.
And the disgraced right wing former minister Liam Fox has been brought back into the fold (see column).
They agree that they can’t win the next general election
without pandering to their most bigoted supporters.
Tory factionalism over Europe is usually code for wider political differences.
When in trouble the Tories seek to mobilise the Tory “core” vote. Usually by highlighting the “dog whistle” issues of Europe, immigration and taxes—what they refer to as the “Tebbit trinity”.
One problem they have is there are fewer bigots than they imagine. But more importantly the Tories are in a desperate situation. The British economy is in a mess and, in or out of Europe, they don’t have a solution.