One other area besides immigration where Tory MPs want their leader to go further than he feels he can is, unsurprisingly, Europe. There is growing pressure within the party for the Prime Minister to get legislation on the floor of the House of Commons which would guarantee a referendum in the next Parliament. This is what Bernard Jenkin, who favours a referendum sooner than 2015, has to say:
‘The Prime Minister’s veto in 2011 gave his poll ratings a great fillip, but that veto was just ignored. They just decided to go ahead with the Fiscal Union Treaty anyway but without the UK. And the UK did not achieve any safeguards to protect UK banking and financial services which the PM was then demanding. This year, the PM managed to get a marginal cut in the EU budget, but the European Parliament has decided to block the cut, and the UK’s contributions to the EU will continue to increase by billions per year. The PM’s speech was a great success, but the rest of the EU is basically carrying on regardless, so pressure for a referendum in this parliament will mount. If he proposed a ‘mandate’ referendum in this parliament, all the evidence suggests that would enhance his standing in the polls, because he would transform a mere promise into action.’
So it’s clear that the Big Europe Speech managed to keep Conservative MPs happy just for a few days. At the time, the PM and his aides ruled out the idea of legislation to guarantee a referendum, or an earlier plebiscite. But that position has changed. I understand that the Prime Minister gave them a very strong indication at a recent meeting of the parliamentary party that he was minded to do this. A number of MPs present who are very keen on a stronger stance on the EU were very encouraged by David Cameron’s words. One in particular, who tends to criticise rather than support the PM, said ‘it was a very cheerful meeting’.
The benefit of this would be that even if the legislation was resoundingly defeated, the Conservatives would win, as they could tell voters that they tried to get a legislative guarantee for a referendum but that neither Labour nor the Lib Dems supported it, so voting Tory is the only way to get that referendum. But the worry for Cameron is that even this kind of defeat makes him look weak.