Julian Lewis is a former Shadow Defence Minister and is MP for New Forest East. He resigned as a Deputy Director of the Conservative Research Department in 1996, in order to oppose British accession to the single European currency before this was Party policy.
In 1983, when fighting my first Parliamentary election campaign, I saw what happens when a major party alienates a section of its own core vote. Michael Foot’s Labour Party spawned the SDP which ensured that an anticipated comfortable Conservative victory became instead Margaret Thatcher’s greatest landslide.
For many months it has been obvious that the UKIP share of the vote in 2015 will seriously reduce the number of seats the Conservatives can expect to win. The Electoral Calculus website has long suggested that that the “UKIP effect” will be to deprive us of enough constituencies to put Labour in Downing Street with a substantial majority.
Lord Ashcroft’s recent polling in our 40 most marginal seats only underlines this: far from gaining the extra ones we need for an overall Conservative win, we are on course to lose many of the marginals we currently hold, where Labour is in second place.
Unless the UKIP threat can be neutralised, we stand virtually no chance of winning an overall majority and a much reduced chance of even remaining the single largest party in Parliament.
Why are so many core Conservative voters in danger of deserting us for UKIP? A major part of the answer has to be that they do not trust us to deliver an EU referendum in the next Parliament. Indeed, it is hard to see how we could deliver such a referendum in the absence of an overall majority.
Does the Prime Minister genuinely believe that, with UKIP making greater inroads into our vote than Labour’s, we can expect to achieve as good a result as in 2010 – let alone better it by several dozen seats? Unless he does, then James Wharton’s backbench EU (Referendum) Bill is not worth the paper on which it is printed.
This Bill is, in reality, no more than a statement of intent. It will not prevent the loss of so many core votes to UKIP, which means that we can virtually abandon hope of an overall majority. And, if we are not in a majority, the referendum will not be held “before 31 December 2017” (as Clause 1(2) lays down) – nor, indeed, at any time in the next Parliament.
By bringing forward the date of the referendum to this side of the General Election, however, we would ensure that all the parties (including UKIP) would have to “put up or shut up”. Some of my fellow Eurosceptics fear that this might prevent the Bill being passed – indeed, 140 of my fellow Conservative MPs wrote to Adam Afriyie earlier this week to make precisely that point. But were this to happen, the Conservatives can reinstate our promise of a referendum in our general election manifesto, so we are little the worse for that outcome.
Yet, supposing the Bill did pass into law, as amended, and a referendum took place in the lifetime of this Parliament? That would mean that the issue of our EU membership would have been settled for a generation. UKIP would have lost its raison d’etre. And, whatever the result of that referendum, our alienated core voters would have every incentive to return to the Conservative fold – maximising the prospect of the overall Conservative majority which David Cameron tells us so often that he wishes to achieve.
Of course, some Euro-sceptics fear an early referendum because they think it might yield the “wrong” result. That’s democracy, comrades: trust the people!