I questioned George Osborne on the issue after last night's Built to Last consultation in Manchester. He said "a promise was a promise" regarding whether it would go ahead, but came back to me to add that it "doesn't necessarily have to be a paper referendum" - that there were other ways of doing it.
Most objections to Built to Last's content in Manchester were semantic or about priorities rather than trenchant, ideological criticism - they were considered to be a little vague but generally agreeable. 86% of party members in March's ConservativeHome survey said that they wouldn't mind the principles espoused in the first draft of B2L being incorporated into the next Party manifesto. In analysing these results at the time ConHome believed that the only profitable use of a ballot would be if it provided different options to be voted on - but now that its "work in progress" status has been further emphasised even that reason is diluted. If it is truly open to being moulded around the views of the party members then why then get them to vote on what they have amended?
The huge cost of "a paper referendum" - mail-shotting 250-300 thousand members - could be better spent on a couple of target-seat election campaigns, or on funding London's open primary for a mayoral candidate.
Much cheaper would be an online election, which is presumably what Osborne was alluding to. There are systems out there where the party could pay a one-off setup fee of say £1000, and then ask 20p for every e-vote recorded - with a maximum cost if turnout is higher than expected. Getting members to actually vote could be problematic however, it might even require a one-off mail-shot of its own to instruct members on how and when to do it. Another conceivable option would be for Conservative Associations to become polling stations for a day - but that raises security problems and regional variations in voting accessability.
One way to balance the books would be to ask party members to contribute to the cost of the electoral process as they vote but they don't seem overly enthusiastic about voting on it as it stands so it wouldn't help turnout - causing concerns about whether the vote was even quorate.
RELATED LINK: Francis Maude asks ConservativeHome readers for their views on Built to Last.