The government’s announcement that EU migrants will not be able to vote in the EU referendum tells us a number of things about the way David Cameron is approaching this vote. Firstly, he’s keen to show everyone that he’s getting on with it – indeed, the Prime Minister seems reinvigorated on all fronts at the moment – and making announcements about the franchise is just one example of that. The second is that Cameron does not want the debate about the referendum to be one of an Establishment stitch-up. Allowing EU citizens to vote would be one way of encouraging such a narrative from certain parts of the ‘Out’ camp. And thirdly, Cameron is keen to preserve party unity as much as he can on an issue that naturally splits his party.
That is why the approving quote from Liam Fox is so significant. Fox said:
‘This is a fitting response by the government. Allowing EU citizens to vote in our referendum would have been an unacceptable dilution of the voice of the British people.’
Fox does not represent the Tory Right as a whole, but he does represent a certain group within the party, and it is far better for the Prime Minister to keep a big beast like the former defence secretary on side.
There are other details that the Tory leader needs to take care over. We still don’t know the date of the referendum, for instance. And there is pressure for Cameron to allow his ministers to campaign for ‘Out’ in the referendum, perhaps letting them resign at the start of the campaign and then re-appointing them once all is done in a gesture of bringing the party back together. But it seems that the Prime Minister is very keen to do all he can to keep his party together. And more importantly, it seems that the Prime Minister is very keen to show he is pouring a great deal of effort into the renegotiation, too, aiming to talk to all other 27 leaders of EU member states before the next European Council at the end of next month. Any suggestion that he is half-hearted about party management or EU reform is currently rather unfair.