Now the dust has settled after last week’s local elections, the Tory party still seem on the back foot. They’ve wheeled out some of the big guns – Theresa May and William Hague – who promise ‘greater certainty’ on a referendum in response to the UKIP threat but, I think, they’re being overly optimistic about the limited appeal of UKIP. A ‘cast iron guarantee (for want of a more fitting phrase) might’ve have quelled the UKIP problem a few years ago but now I don’t think it’s going to be so easy any more. UKIP now have many more councillors than the Tories would like. Come 2015, as everyone keeps pointing out, these will be footsoldiers. UKIP suddenly have a stronger army at a local level and the Tories are that little bit weaker.
What Cameron needs to do is think about the wider picture. He can’t bring forward legislation to guarantee his referendum in 2017 because of his coalition partners (the way I see it, Nick Clegg is sulking in a corner with his arms crossed threatening to leave – but go where?). If the Tories had a majority I think they’d squeeze this legislation through but they don’t. So what’s the solution? Get a backbencher to propose a bill.
Think about it. A proposal for legislation guaranteeing a referendum is debated in the House of Commons and then voted on. It will probably be defeated but, here’s the point, in this country (unlike the EU MEPs who can shield themselves if they wish) we can see exactly who voted for a bill and who voted against it. Come the next election, voters will be able to see whether their own MP voted for them to have a say in the future of the UK or whether they neglected to trust their constituents. One thing that characterises UKIP’s rise is that they listen to the fears and concerns of ordinary people. The main criticism of the career politicians who litter the benches at Westminster is that they are out of touch with everyday life. How better to make them confront it?
In such a scenario, Ed Miliband would face a dilemma. He clearly wants us to stay in the EU and would, I think, be inclined to whip his MPs to agree with him. Why would he allow a bill he detests the thought of to slip through via the backing of some of his own MPs? It’ll be a test of two things – the loyalty of MPs to their constituents and the strength of Miliband’s leadership. I think whichever way you look at this, Ed Miliband loses.
In my own constituency of Wakefield, Labour’s Mary Creagh (currently Shadow Environment Secretary) is only sitting on a majority of 1,613 votes. The Tory candidate was snapping at her heels in 2010 but, crucially, UKIP neglected to stand in the area because the Tory candidate was a Eurosceptic. I wonder if such a decision will hold in 2015? Nevertheless, Creagh is one of those MPs who needs to think long and hard about where her responsibility lies – to her leader or to her constituents. However, I fear I know which side she will land on and it’ll be one that’ll cause her some problems come 2015. If a Tory leaflet drops through my door proudly proclaiming that Creagh voted against giving her constituents a say in the running of our country, that she didn’t trust us to have an opinion, I doubt I’ll be surprised.