By Harry Phibbs
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How would you vote in there was a referendum on EU membership tomorrow?
We know that certain cabinet ministers would vote to come out, we also know that others would vote to stay in. The Prime Minister, David Cameron says:
“There isn’t going to be a referendum tomorrow so it is a hypothetical question. What matters is making sure that we do everything we can to reform the EU — make it more flexible, more open, more competitive and improve Britain’s relations with the EU."
Even though he is in Washington to talk to President Obama about Syria, the G8 and a trade deal, the EU referendum was the issue Mr Cameron was being pressed on by the media. 9He is later visiting Boston and goes to New York tomorrow.)
The Prime Minister is talking up the prospect of substantial changes to our EU membership being renegotiated.
“Every Conservative cabinet minister is confident that we will be able to deliver those changes and so that is what we are pushing towards.”
“It is a very important simple point. There is only one way to get this in/out referendum. That is to make sure we deliver a Conservative victory at the next election.”
While he was at it Mr Cameron criticised the former Defence Secretary Michael Portillo, who suggested any renegotiation were hopeless:
“With great respect for Michael Portillo — I remember working as his special adviser many years ago — the point I would make to these people is to give up before a negotiation has started seems to me an extraordinary way to go about things.
“The idea of throwing in the towel before the negotiations have even started is a very strange opinion.”
What about cabinet miniisters being told to abstain but backbenchers and PPSs being allowed to vote in favour?
“It is a very sensible approach. Coalition does throw up different circumstances. I think it is a very sensible approach to say it wouldn’t be right for ministers to vote for an amendment to their own Queen’s speech so it makes sense for ministers to abstain.
“But equally it is perfectly acceptable for Conservative MPs to vote for this amendment which is in line with the party’s policy.”
So far as Lord Lawson is concerned the worry is that David Cameron is not the heir to Blair but the heir to Harold Wilson. Lord Lawson said in his Times article (£):
He is following faithfully in the footsteps of Harold Wilson almost 40 years ago. The changes that Wilson was able to negotiate were so trivial that I doubt if anyone today can remember what they were. But he was able to secure a 2-1 majority for the “in” vote in the 1975 referendum.
Lord Lawson is being rather pessimistic. Would the other EU members really be indifferent if we pulled out with our £8 billion membership sub?
Given the level of exports to the UK from other EU countries would they really want us to open up our trading relationships with the rest of world? If they thought we were serious about leaving I think the concessions for persuading us to stay would be serious.
In that sense while the Prime Minister may find it annoying the "hypothetical" talk from his colleagues about chossing to leave the EU in its current form the willingness to face up to that decision strengthens his hand.
In any event is optimism or pessimism about the renegotiation the crucial point? If voters are unhappy with the current arrangements, but believe substantial improvements can be achieved, then they should vote Conservative at the next election for the process to take place. However those that are unhappy with our EU membership and dubious of whether their concerns could be remedied should also vote Conservative. They will have a chance to deliver their verdict on a deficient rengotiation by voting to come out.
Incidentally UKIP are getting their message in a muddle. Firstly, they are saying that there is no point voting Conservative as David Cameron will certainly fail to deliver on the promise of an in/out referendum. Secondly, they are saying that there is no point voting Conservative as Ed Miliband is bound to match such a promise and we will be sure of having the referndum either way.