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How today's referendum row could change the rules of the game in 2015

By Peter Hoskin
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Really, honestly, I woke up this morning intending to write a post on what the continuing EU farrago implies about the next Tory manifesto and, indeed, the formation of the next Government. My argument was straightforward. With David Cameron being pushed into ever more spectacular shows of commitment to an EU Referendum, will the policy be an even more inviolable promise around the next election? And, if so, what would that mean for the chances of another LibCon coalition? If the Lib Dems remained set against a referendum, it could add all up to No.10 for Ed Miliband.

But that was before I read Daniel Finkelstein’s column for the Times (£) this morning, which strides across similar ground. The next election, he writes, “will be one defined not by policy pledges but by how robust those pledges are”. The party leaders will have to, in effect, draw up “red line manifestos,” establishing where they will and will not cede ground in any coalition negotiations. And the upshot is that “it is quite possible that, by the end of it all, the red lines will make the formation of a new coalition very difficult indeed.”

In which case, I hope you – and Daniel – don’t mind if I make a few supplementary points:

i) Red lines needn’t mean more clarity. I doubt any of the three main party leaders will go into the next election without a proper plan for coalition. But that doesn’t mean that – in public, at least – they will be clearer about their commitments. It’s worth remembering the flipside to red lines that cannot be crossed: fuzzy, wavy lines that can be crossed. Where a party leader isn’t making non-negotiable commitments, they may be tempted to cloud their policies to meet all electoral eventualities. That way, we might see more pledges like this one that Ed Miliband wrote into the last Labour manifesto

“Over the next Parliament the structural deficit will be cut by more than two-thirds.”

…where the “by more than” contained enough leeway that, in theory in least, Labour could even have agreed with the Coalition’s deficit reduction plan.  

ii) The trust dimension. John Baron’s campaign for an EU Referendum Bill has revolved around trust: after the Lisbon Treaty, he says, the public don’t believe what politicians say about Europe any more, and so more must be done to reassure them. Myself, I suspect the wider public doesn’t much care about Europe, but that doesn’t entirely negate Mr Baron’s point. The fact is, voters barely believe anything that politicians say. In a recent YouGov poll, only 23 per cent of people said they trust “leading Labour politicians”, dropping to 19 per cent for Tories and 16 per cent for Lib Dems. There are now, quite literally, more people who think Princess Diana was assassinated than trust leading politicians from all three main parties.

This, of course, has ramifications for the next manifestos. Red lines or no’, will people actually believe any of the promises that are made? And, if not – by Tory backbench logic – should David Cameron be doing more to firm up his commitments now, not just on Europe? In any case, the Prime Minister would be in a stronger position had he worked harder on restoring trust in politics. I’ve put forward some ideas for that in the past, including here and here.

iii) Better party management? Daniel begins his column by observing that the Lib Dem leadership did more to involve their MPs in the coalition negotiations than did the Tory leadership. And so, as he puts it, “the Liberal Democrats volunteered to get hit on the head by a flowerpot, the Conservatives did not” – with the sorts of consequences that we are seeing now.

But surely that cannot happen in future, should other coalitions be formed. As the current Referendum row demonstrates, the Tory party’s “red lines” will have to be drawn in consultation and conjunction with Tory MPs. Otherwise, Tory MPs will try to impose their own “red lines” after the event, and that gets very messy for all involved.

It’s partially what I meant when I wrote, in a ConHome column last year, that “now’s the time for David Cameron to make a ‘big, open and comprehensive offer’ to his own party.” He made such an offer to the Lib Dems after the last election, setting out areas for compromise and cooperation. But he’s never made one to his own colleagues. That could be fixed by the prospect of more coalitions to come.


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