By Tim Montgomerie
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There is a huge new divide in British politics. Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg want to deny the British people a vote on their future. Nigel Farage's party is too small to deliver a referendum and give anyone born after 1957 a say on whether their country should be part of this huge European enterprise. David Cameron can and will deliver an In/Out referendum if he is still Prime Minister after the next election. That will be guaranteed if Britain votes for a Tory majority in the House of Commons. If there is another hung parliament the Tory leader's aides have told the Daily Mail that he will make a referendum a pre-condition of coalition negotiations.
Last night I published extracts from Cameron's big speech.
In his Opinion Pollster column Stephan Shakespeare notes a 27% swing in favour of EU membership in just eight weeks – simply because pro-EU voices have joined the argument. He also suggests that the speech will make it "slightly" more likely that Cameron will still be PM after the next election.
I'm more optimistic than Stephan about the electoral implications of today's speech for Conservative prospects for four big reasons:
- Cameron has demonstrated leadership qualities. Making a big declaration about Europe is only part of the political dividend we should expect. Promising an In/Out referendum isn't just about the issue of Europe. Just as with the veto in December 2011 it's about leadership, patriotism and standing up for Britain. Critically, it's also about trusting the people. Cameron has communicated all of these qualities with this move. Voters will reward Cameron for doing so.
- Today's move also has the potential to win some much needed love from Britain's centre right newspapers. Look at today's frontpages. Cameron hasn't had such good coverage from Fleet Street for quite some time. A lot of news-makers probably care more about Europe than the average Briton and this pledge will make them more likely to cover Cameron more positively when it comes to other issues.
- It puts a lid on UKIP and will mend at least part of the split of the Eurosceptic, centre right vote. It doesn't kill the UKIP vote. UKIP's surge is about much more than Europe but getting an In/Out vote was the party's founding purpose. I don't expect many UKIP activists to switch but they've just lost one of their most important reasons for existence. Fair enough that UKIP contests European and local elections but they shouldn't contest the general election and hand power to anti-referendum Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs. I fear they almost certainly will.
- This move gives the Conservative Party an opportunity to talk about other issues. ConHome will be watching carefully today for those Conservatives who will take a glass-half-empty view of Cameron's speech. I hope there won't be many of them. Cameron has given more ground to Eurosceptics than any previous Tory leader. I noted on Monday that Europe is not the only area in which he'd moved in a Mainstream Conservative direction. He deserves more benefit of the doubt from his party. The party could benefit enormously from appearing and being a more united political force. There are, of course, big discussions to be had about the nature and scope of the renegotiation process but let us hope that peace and good manners break out inside the party on Europe. We can spend more time talking about Robert Halfon MP's 10p tax plan. Laura Sandys' consumer empowerment agenda. Andrea Leadsom's proposal for a portable bank account number. Nick Boles' ideas to help young people get on the housing ladder. Matt Hancock's apprenticeships. John Hayes' common sense on energy tariffs. Liz Truss' agenda to help people afford childcare. All summed up in Greg Clark's brilliant piece yesterday on a Conservative Party that cares AND acts for working people.