Jonathan Isaby's article earlier today on Conservative Home accurately recorded that twnety Conservative MP’s defied a heavy three-line whip and voted for an in/out referendum on the European Union last night. Of those twenty, seven were from the pre-2005 intake, five were from the 2005 intake and eight were from the 2010 intake – clearly showing that there is concern over European Union across both experienced and new Conservative members.
But what is more interesting is the hidden detail behind the headline. First and perhaps most obvious, is that not a single Liberal Democrat MP supported an in/out referendum, which was in line with their party’s manifesto at the last election. The 2010 Liberal manifesto entitled Change that works for you, building a fairer Britain, stated:
“The European Union has evolved signiﬁcantly since the last public vote on membership over thirty years ago. Liberal Democrats therefore remain committed to an in/out referendum”
Despite this pledge of principle, 43 Liberal Democrats voted against an in/out referendum and fourteen abstained. Not a single one voted in line with the party’s general election pledge.
However, what is more interesting still is the hidden detail behind the Conservative vote.
There were five Conservative members who I know were unable to vote because they were away from the Palace of Westminster who would have supported the in/out referendum. In addition there were eighteen Conservative backbench members who defied the three-line whip and deliberately abstained. The vast bulk of them were in the Palace of Westminster at the time of the vote, but chose to positively abstain to show their support for an in/out referendum, but not necessarily the technicalities of the new clause.
As well as those 43 Conservative members who deliberately defied the three-line whip, there were a further sixteen who voted with the government but support an in/out referendum. Some of those spoke openly in the four-hour debate of their support for such a referendum, but believed the new clause was technically flawed.
There is of course another group of Conservative MPs who would support an in/out referendum but they are stopped from expressing that opinion by collective responsibility. Many ministers in the Government have expressed to me privately that they would support such a policy.
When you add the Conservative MP’s who are openly supportive of an in/out referendum and those closet Conservative MPs who would if they could, then you have a substantial part of the parliamentary party in favour of a referendum on our membership of the European Union.
Turning to Labour, four of them supported the new clause calling for an in/out referendum. 253 of them abstained. Not a single Labour MP voted against the call for an in/out referendum. Here lies the real cause for concern for the party: Labour has left itself the option of supporting a policy at the next general election which would call for an in/out referendum on Europe. That could have massive and damaging consequences for Conservative candidates fighting the next general election.
It has already been argued by many people that the failure by the party to offer a referendum on Europe cost us seats and an overall majority. What damage would be done at the next election if we went in to it saying no to an in/out referendum and Labour went in to it guarantee an in/out referendum?