The Romford Pledge might not have the same ring to it as the Tamworth Manifesto. But Boris Johnson’s decision while campaigning last month to sign up to the campaign for an in/out referendum on EU membership could be a key moment in the history of the Conservative party — the moment when the party’s balance of power tipped decisively in favour of a referendum.
As with so many of Boris’s actions, it is hard to know whether his pledge was spontaneous or a calculated move. Certainly, the Mayor hesitated before signing. Then, according to those present, the seat’s Eurosceptic Tory MP, Andrew Rosindell, told him it wasn’t party policy to sign — and that appeared to make up his mind. But Boris’s signature on the People’s Pledge has changed the dynamics of the Tory debate about Europe. When he returns to the Commons, his standing as the only Tory since Margaret Thatcher to win a personal mandate for high office twice will demand a post in Cabinet. Signing up to a referendum would no longer be incompatible with joining the front bench. With that precedent set, a slew of Tory MPs and ministers would add their support. There are, I understand, at least a couple of senior Cabinet ministers who would welcome a chance to call publicly for an in/out referendum.
The real significance of Boris’s signature, though, might come when he runs for the leadership, as he surely will at some point in the future. No rival could afford to give Boris the head start that he would have as the only candidate promising a referendum would give him. A commitment to give the public a vote on Europe will be the minimum price of admission for the next leadership contest.
Yet there are reasons to think that a referendum on Europe could come even sooner. The Tory leadership is acutely aware that, after five years of compromises, it will need something in the next manifesto to fire up the base. Tory MPs in marginal seats complain that their pool of canvassers has been drained, and that, without action, the party risks a limited presence on the ground in these constituencies in 2015.
A referendum on Europe is the obvious answer. It is one the leadership seems set to embrace. The popularity of Cameron’s EU veto made his circle realise how much of a political asset Euroscepticism could be, if used in the right way. There is also concern in No. 10 that if the Tories don’t offer the public a vote, Labour will.
One source intimately involved in Tory electoral strategy told me recently that a referendum in the next manifesto was ‘basically a certainty’. The only debate now was about what ‘sequencing’ the manifesto should propose: renegotiate Britain’s membership of the European Union and then hold a referendum on the result, or hold a referendum asking for permission to go to Brussels and renegotiate.
My understanding is that, at the moment, the favoured option is to propose renegotiation, followed by a referendum on the new arrangements within 18 months. During the campaign, the Tories would argue for staying in if new terms could be agreed but leaving if the rest of Europe refused to play ball.
Neither of the options is a straight in/out vote. But either one would require drastic action. No Prime Minister could head to Brussels with an instruction from the people to change this country’s relationship with Europe and return with an opt-out from parts of the working-time directive.
Another reason why a referendum is almost certain to be Tory policy in 2015 is Ukip. Since the election, Ukip has been pecking away at the Tories’ right wing. It used to pick up its votes from all parties and none. But its support has doubled since 2010, and pollsters think that 80 per cent of the increase has come at the expense of the Tories. In last week’s local elections, it polled at 13 per cent where it stood — increasing its share of the vote by more than a third since last year’s local elections. When European elections, Ukip’s traditional strong point, are held again in 2014, many now expect it to come first.
The Tory leadership’s worry is not that Ukip will win seats in 2015, but that the votes it claims in crucial marginals could make the difference between the Tories winning or losing. In Conservative Campaign Headquarters, particular attention has been paid to the council results in Thurrock, where the Tory majority at the general election was less than 100. There Ukip won a council seat, secured several second-place finishes and gave Labour its margin of victory in a couple of wards. One source of comfort to the Tories, though, is that Ukip has ruled out a strategy similar to the one successfully pursued by the Referendum Party in 1997 of targeting vulnerable non-Eurosceptic Tory MPs.
There is also a wish to stop Boris from taking the credit for a move away from Europe. ‘Boris wants to present himself as the man of destiny who’ll free us from our European bondage,’ one insider says. ‘So a referendum would shoot his fox just as much as Ukip’s.’
Finally, there is House of Lords reform. Nick Clegg has rejected a compromise by which the upper house would be indirectly elected on the basis of the general election results. If a more radical reform is to proceed — far from certain — Cameron will require a referendum. Even the most loyal MPs would find it hard to justify giving the electorate a vote on the Lords but not Europe.
Taken together, these factors make it highly likely that Britain will have its first vote on Europe since 1975 within the next five years. Given public opinion on the matter and the continuing crisis in the eurozone, Britain’s relationship with Europe looks certain to have changed by the end of the decade. We will either have the equivalent of a country membership of the Brussels club or we will have left altogether.