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With selections coming and an EU vote looming, how frightened are Tory MPs of grassroots opinion on Europe?

By Paul Goodman
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Roughly six months ago, I gave ten reasons why many Conservative MPs don't entirely trust the party leadership.  To the factors I listed can be added two more: the disgruntlement of male MPs at their lack of promotion prospects - signalled by the elevation in the Liam Fox-necessitated reshuffle of Justine Greening, Chloe Smith and now Claire Perry - and the consequences of the boundary review (which I described on the site last month).  The Independent this morning highlights the problems this is causing on the backbenches, suggesting that local Tories will look during the selections to come for applicants to have backed a referendum.

"Senior Tories warned last night that the party's MPs will be under enormous pressure to defy Mr Cameron on 27 October by voting in favour of a referendum. They said the crucial factor in many Tory MPs' minds would be the proposed shake-up of parliamentary boundaries to allow the Government to cut the number of MPs from 650 to 600. This will provoke a scramble for seats, with many MPs doing battle with colleagues for the right to be their party's candidate at the next election."

David Nuttall's motion for debate next Wednesday is deftly crafted.  By yoking together two separate referendum proposals - for renegotiation and withdrawal - it aims to maximise the number of Conservative votes.  The leadership will hint that a renegotiation poll may be all very well at some point in the future, but that its prospects would be damaged by putting an "Out" option on the ballot paper, since the Euro-sceptic vote would be divided.  And the Whips will doubtless be busy in the lobbies and behind the scenes.

I agree that presenting voters with two Euro-sceptic options would split the vote (unless anyone is proposing to use, er, AV).  But the beauty of next week's division is that it is indicative, not particular.  The result won't bind the Government, but will give Ministers an indication of what the Commons wants.  This offers MPs of all parties reason to vote for the motion, arguing as they do so that they are sending David Cameron a message: that voters have had enough of the EU as it stands.  Personal frustration and high principle are a dangerous combination for any Government.


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