By Paul Goodman
Follow Paul on Twitter.
Utterly unsurprisingly, holding the promised In/Out EU referendum in 2015 was the top "red line" issue for any future Conservative/Liberal Democrat negotiations in our survey which over 800 Conservative Party members answered. We asked respondents to list a series of issues on a scale of one to ten, with one representing "very negotiable" and ten representing "non negotiable". Both "In-Out referendum on Britain's EU membership in 2017" and "Attempt to renegotiate Britain's relationship with the EU" came in at 8.5.
"Britain should leave the ECHR" scored seven. I suspect that party members' priorities are the other way round in this respect from voters, given the public reaction to the Court's "votes for prisoners" rulings. (Policy Exchange's research in Northern Lights, which looked at a series of wedge issues, found 70 per cent of respondents believing that "human rights have become a charter for the criminals and undeserving".) Six per cent believe that a British Bill of Rights should be introduced.
Turning to the Commons, Britain's relationship with Europe is clearly a very significant issue for Conservative MPs, as the history of rebellions in this Parliament confirms and as Philip Cowley and Mark Stuart suggested on this site in May. It's impossible to know what their view would be of any proposal to re-form the Coalition with the Liberal Democrats, but my best guess is that David Cameron would find it impossible to drop the 2017 referendum (presuming he wished to) – because Tory MPs' views on holding it are not all that different from Party members'.
The view of Conservative sources I spoke to yesterday who follow the EU issue closely is that Nick Clegg has deliberately left himself and his party maximum room for negotiation on the referendum after 2015: the Liberal Democrats have been careful not to commit themselves to scrapping it, though their position remains that no In/Out referendum should be held unless treaty change is proposed that transfers further powers from Britain to the EU – one that the party's coming conference may endorse.
My own view is that any discussions about a second Coalition would be more likely to founder on renegotiation than the referendum. Most Conservative MPs don't have a defined position on the repatriation of powers, but many of them certainly want most returned – which would mean treaty change. The Liberal Democrats speak of reform rather than repatriation: more free trade agreements, the extension of the single market, reform of the European Parliament. And it isn't yet clear, of course, what the Party's own manifesto position will be.
Stephen Tall's column for this site today effectively communicates the flavour of what Liberal Democrats want from the EU. It's very different from our Party's own centre of gravity. I thus claim it as evidence of why renegotiation/reform is a rock on which a second series of coalition negotiations post-2015 could founder. Tomorrow, I'll report on the other top five red line issues which emerge from our poll, and turn on Wednesday to what it suggests about the economy and taxes.