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Do Conservative MPs really want to win the next election?

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By Paul Goodman

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The main argument for the Baron/Bone amendment to the Queen's Speech, which regrets the absence of an EU bill, is either that a mandate referendum bill, which aims to give David Cameron a mandate for EU renegotiation, or an In/Out bill, which seeks to write his promised referendum into law (or both), are essential if the Conservatives are to win voters back in 2015.  This is simply wrong.  Such thinking over-estimates the significance of Parliament and the salience of the E.U issue to voters - including UKIP voters (see here, here and here).  The matters that most move the British people at the ballot box are the meat, potatoes and two veg of British politics: the economy, hospitals, schools and crime - plus, of course, immigration.

The mandate referendum is dubious.  Its most likely outcome is a large vote for renegotiation on a low turnout - thus undermining the very mandate which it seeks to gain.  The writing of an E.U amendment into law is a different matter.  While it may not move many voters, it will undoubtedly reassure some, and is sensible enough.  The best time for one to be moved, from the point of view of preserving the Coalition, would be during the final period of this Parliament.  However, the Prime Minister has now bowed to the will of his party, and had a private members' bill drawn up.  This is enough to satisfy Douglas Carswell and Daniel Hannan, who yesterday wrote in support of Cameron's latest initiative, and some other Euro-sceptic MPs, such as Zac Goldsmith.

Hannan and Carswell are straightforward Outers, and thus not much interested in renegotiation before withdrawal and, therefore, in the mandate referendum.  Their view is that since the Prime Minister has now promised support for an EU referendum private members bill, there is no point in regretting the absence of a bill in the Queen's Speech - since its effect will merely be to make his life more difficult, Ed Miliband's easier, and a Conservative Government after 2015 less likely. The political logic of this position from a Tory point of view is irrefutable, and both men are among the least likely candidates for the Lickspittle Loyalist of the Year awards.  Why, then, are many of their colleagues unpersuaded - since, this morning, the rebellion over the amendment continues?

Cameron's lamentable tactical handling of the revolt, and the strategic flaws in his European policy that lie behind it, provides part of the explanation.  So does his lack of authority, inherent in his lack of a majority - and his mishandling of the Parliamentary Party for too long.  So does the rise of UKIP, which is spooking many Conservative MPs.  So does the passion which the EU issue has provoked in the party for over 20 years.  This is now raging with all the irrationality of a Shakespearian mob.  "Mischief, thou art afoot," Mark Anthony says at the end of his oration.  "Take thou what course thou wilt."  Go fetch fire!  Pluck down benches! Pluck down forms, windows, anything!  The blood of some Tory MPs is up, especially in safer seats.  And nothing - not even their party's fate at the next election - appears capable of cooling it.


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