By Paul Goodman
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David Cameron gave Conservative MPs "a very strong indication" at the recent Parliamentary Party meeting that he wants to introduce legislation before 2015 for his planned EU referendum after the next election. Or so the Spectator's Isabel Hardman reported recently. But the Prime Minister knows as well as anyone that Nick Clegg wouldn't support such a move: it would simply be vetoed. So what on earth was he doing playing up to his Euro-sceptic MPs? Was one of his weaknesses on display – namely, his tendency to duck short-term trouble, whatever the medium-term cost ? Or were the Spectator's sources mistaken? Did they mis-read or exaggerate?
Perhaps. That's been known to happen – and often, too. But I believe that Isabel knows what she's about, and that there's another explanation for Cameron's nods and hints. Both he and Nick Clegg – and most MPs in the parties they lead – want the Coalition to continue. They recognise that if they don't hang together they will hang separately, and that a snap election, forced amidst strife and chaos, would benefit neither of their parties. (Yes, yes: I appreciate that there's a Fixed Terms Parliament Act. But it might not be sufficient to prolong this Parliament until 2015, were the Coalition to break down.)
All the same, it is almost inconceivable that they want to be in the same airplane all the way until the April of that year. At some point, both will want a soft landing: an orderly separation before the election takes place; a chance to set out their separate stalls to voters. Cameron will be hoping for a new Liberal Democrat leader to peel left-wing votes back from Labour: Tim Farron or, even better, Vince Cable – although his view of the Business Secretary is a bit like St Augustine's view of chastity: give me Cable, Lord, but not yet. The Prime Minister wants his Deputy in place for a little while longer, to keep the Coalition going in as coherent a manner as possible.
There is little point in declaring that Cameron should do now what he won't do now – for example, introduce that bill setting out his EU referendum, which at least 100 Conservative MPs, organised by the persevering John Baron, are pressing him to do. But it makes sense for him to work out when, from his party's point of view, that soft landing should take place. The parts of the party and Conservative commentariat best disposed to the Coalition will doubtless want to see it go all the way until April 2015. A minority of Tory MPs would be happy to see the Government's house come crashing down now. I think that a better course lies somewhere in between.
When? Some would say before the Euro-elections of 2014, in order to dent UKIP's share of the vote. But this is to presume that the pledge of a bill to bring in a referendum, following the pledge of a referendum itself earlier this year, would have such an effect. It wouldn't. Euro-elections are the traditional means by which voters protest against the EU; UKIP will do very well in them, and nothing that Cameron could say or promise is likely to lower their vote. To break up the Coalition to try to stop UKIP doing well in a poll it will do well in anyway would look like panic: more importantly, it would be panic.
That leaves a timeframe somewhere between May 2014 and May 2015. I would choose earlier rather than later – in September 2014, just before the party conference season. This would allow Cameron to use the conference as a platform to say what a majority Conservative Government would do…and to use the Commons, for the best part of six months, as a platform to show what it would do. A minority Conservative Government, working on the basis of confidence and supply, could attempt to introduce the bill Baron wants. Chris Grayling would get his chance to try to scrap or weaken the ECHR. George Osborne could propose a tighter benefits cap.
Michael Fallon could argue that the Carbon Price Floor should be slowed or abandoned. Theresa May could propose a new, lower limit for immigration. And so on. Sure, the Labour and the Liberal Democrats would combine to vote such plans down, and there's a risk that the new Government would look weak in consequence. But if the alternative is that the Coalition staggers on, like a lamb to the slaughter, clinging to office until the very last moment, what sort of an alternative is that? Liberal Democrats will ask themselves that question no less searchingly than Tories. A soft landing is in both parties' interests, and there's no better time for it than the September of next year.