Most “eurosceptic” Conservatives care more about the next elections than the EU

Image by Ben Fisher/GAVI Alliance

Image by Ben Fisher/GAVI Alliance

Conservatives clearly care an awful lot – some would say too much – about Europe. But most of them care even more about winning elections. Naturally the Tory EUphoria occasioned by David Cameron’s referendum pledge owes something to his appearing to promise better-off-outters a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to put their case directly to the British people. But to the bulk of Conservatives, who are sceptical but not utterly obsessed with the issue, what mattered more was the possibility that the speech might see them safely through to the next election – and might even help them win it.

Those Tories who want to leave the EU will of course worry that Cameron is playing them for fools: many observers, after all, predict that, like Labour’s Harold Wilson back in 1974, he will call a referendum after an essentially cosmetic renegotiation that will nonetheless persuade most voters that he’s done enough to make the UK’s continued membership worthwhile. And Cameron, as he’s shown us very recently, has got form, returning from several summits in Brussels claiming more or less convincingly to have got what he wanted. Ultimately, though, hard-line sceptics know they may never get the chance to ask the in-out question again, so it’s a risk they know they’re just going to have to run.

Some sceptics, of course, have begun to ask, and will continue to ask, awkward questions. Precisely which powers does Cameron want to repatriate? Will William Hague’s supposedly ‘comprehensive audit’ turn out to be a British lion or a rather more mundane mouse? Will he garner any support from fellow heads of government, some of whom may be making encouraging noises now but may be booted out by their own electorates a few months or years hence? Will it take a Treaty change or can Cameron get a deal some other way? How far does any reform package have to go before it’s deemed sufficiently different from the status quo to merit putting it to the voters? Will he really be willing to recommend a ‘no’ vote if he can’t get what he wants? When exactly will the referendum be held? How will the question be worded? Simply yes or no to a particular package or, if no, then we leave? Will all members of the government be expected to toe the party line during the referendum campaign or will they be allowed to break ranks without losing their jobs?

For all that, most of them will go for it. And they will be joined by those who are less bothered about Brussels than they are about holding on to their seats and possibly even pulling off a miracle at the next election. The referendum will, they hope, stop UKIP in its tracks – hopes which rose (if only for a while) on the results of the first batch of post-speech opinion polls and a rather crestfallen Nigel Farage shifting his focus to Labour. They also believe that Ed Miliband’s decision not – or at least not at the moment – to match Cameron’s in-out offer will make things awkward for him at the next election. Likewise Nick Clegg – and remember that around half of the forty seats apparently targeted by the Tories in 2015 will be Lib Dem rather than Labour seats. More importantly for some, Cameron’s speech may – just may – see Europe returned to the backburner, leaving the government free to focus on the things that will most matter to winning that election, namely getting the economy right, hitting the government’s targets on immigration, and making sure that deficit reduction doesn’t impact too seriously on cherished public services, most obviously the NHS.

All this might be a little bit optimistic. Most obviously, when it comes to Europe itself, there are so many things that are out of Cameron’s – indeed, anyone’s – control. Elections in other countries. A catastrophic break-up of the single currency. And a refusal to allow the UK to have its cake and eat it on the part of other governments for whom Cameron’s demands may render what I like to think of as the Gloria Gaynor option increasingly attractive.

Domestically, things are also finely-balanced. Anyone expecting the uptick in Tory opinion poll ratings to turn into a step-change is likely to be disappointed: reality – particularly if the country returns to recession – is bound to bite once again, and bite hard. Defeat at Eastleigh, especially if UKIP doesn’t trail in too badly in fourth place, will also cause Cameron problems. As for Labour, Miliband may well, like Wilson, find himself ‘wading through shit’ for a while on the issue, but voters may well begin to discount his apparent refusal to give them a say, particularly as the economy once again overtakes Europe as the biggest issue facing the country. And when it comes to the Lib Dems, Cameron may well turn out to have been too clever by half. True, it’s unlikely that they’ll cite the referendum as the co-respondent in the divorce proceedings they’re almost bound to initiate as the election draws closer. But – unless it really is the case that all they care about is clinging onto office irrespective of everything they once stood for – it is hard to imagine that the issue will play no part whatsoever in any choice they may eventually have to make between another coalition with the Conservatives and what might by that time seem like fresh start with Labour.

As for the Tories, Europe might be a big issue – perhaps even the biggest issue. But it’s not the only issue. Team Cameron was shocked by how many right-wingers (and, yes, I know that hard-line Euroscepticism doesn’t necessarily go hand-in-hand with traditional views on social policy) simply banked their ‘victory’ on the referendum and moved swiftly onto gay marriage, which will no doubt continue to down like the proverbial cup of cold sick back in the constituencies until the legislation is finally passed. And, however nonsensical it may be, especially given the fact that, as Michael Ashcroft continually reminds them, Cameron outpolls his Party, some will still actively hanker after Boris. At the moment, the idea that anyone would seek to replace the Prime Minister before the next election seems fanciful. But what if Labour, as it probably will, begins to pull clear again in the polls? And what if, despite Cameron’s speech, UKIP beats the Tories into third place in the European parliament elections?

There is, of course, an awful lot of ‘what if’ in all this – perhaps inevitably. On this issue at least, I’m not one of those who believes (to borrow from Shakespeare) that they ‘can look into the seeds of time and say which grain will grow and which will not.’ But any Conservative who believes that Cameron has suddenly conjured up a win-win situation from everything that’s been thrown at him – mainly by his own side – in the last eighteen months should be careful not to celebrate too soon.

EuroscepticismThis post is part of a collaboration between British Politics and PolicyEUROPP and Ballots & Bullets, which aims to examine the nature of euroscepticism in the UK and abroad from a wide range of perspectives. Read more posts from this series.

Tim Bale is Professor of Politics at Queen Mary, University of LondonHe is the author of The Conservative Party from Thatcher to Cameron. His latest book is The Conservatives since 1945: the Drivers of Party Change.

Polling Observatory #21: is David Cameron picking the wrong fights?

Nott 01-02-13 low res smallThis is the twenty-first in a series of posts that report on the state of the parties as measured by opinion polls. By pooling together all the available polling evidence we can reduce the impact of the random variation each individual survey inevitably produces. Most of the short term advances and setbacks in party polling fortunes are nothing more than random noise; the underlying trends – in which we are interested and which best assess the parties’ standings – are relatively stable and little influenced by day-to-day events. If there can ever be a definitive assessment of the parties’ standings, this is it. Further details of the method we use to build our estimates of public opinion can be found here.

What do gay marriage and the European Union have in common? They are both issues which the Conservative leadership have brought to the top of the political agenda in the past few weeks. And both are issues which interest the average Conservative MP a great deal more than the average voter. David Cameron’s long awaited, and heavily promoted, “Big Speech” on Europe won near universal praise from Eurosceptic politicians and journalists despite proposing no concrete reforms to the EU and no concrete change in Britain’s relationships with Brussels this side of the 2015 general election.

In the aftermath of the Big Speech, which its supporters claimed settled the issue of Europe once and for all for Conservatives, all eyes turned to the polls for evidence that Cameron had reversed the leak of votes to UKIP which most likely helped push the issue on the agenda in the first place. This ploy had worked before, after all: Cameron started 2012 with a spring in his step, after his largely meaningless “veto” at the December 2011 EU summit produced a substantial “bounce” in his party’s poll ratings (and his personal ratings as leader). For a short while, the Conservatives and Labour were neck and neck. It didn’t last though – within a few months normal service resumed, with the Tories slowly deflating, UKIP drifting upwards and Labour back in a comfortable pole position.

In 2013, the benefits of Brussels bashing look even more meagre. Our estimate has the Conservatives at 31.9% this month, up a mere 1.3 point on early December. Labour have shifted even less, down 0.7% at 40.7%, while UKIP have proved resilient to the Big Speech, coming in at 8.8%, exactly where we had them nearly two months ago. This isn’t a big surprise, as a growing body of research and polling shows that, unlike Conservative backbenchers, UKIP voters don’t see Europe as the burning issue of the day. Their support for Nigel Farage’s party is more to do with anxiety about immigration and a general negativity about the current government. The Conservatives should know this, as their largest funder Lord Ashcroft provided a detailed and convincing report on the concerns of UKIP voters just a few months ago. Nor have the Tories benefited at the expense of their pro-EU coalition partners – the Lib Dems’ are at 8.8%, up 0.3 points on our December reading. Some Conservative MPs seem to believe making the next election a referendum about the EU is a winning strategy. On this point, the polling evidence is pretty clear: it isn’t.

How about gay marriage? We will have polling evidence on that next month, but again there are strong reasons to be sceptical that it will help the Conservatives. As with Europe, this is an issue where voters broadly agree with the Conservatives’ policy proposals, but also regard it as a pretty low priority. YouGov polling suggests only around 7% of voters think the introduction of gay marriage will influence their vote, and as Anthony Wells points out even that low number is likely to be exaggerated, as voters tend to have an inflated sense of the impact passing issues will have on their political choices. Legalising gay marriage won’t win armies of new voters to the Tory banner.

Will it help the image of the Conservative party, as a progressive, inclusive, modernised organisation? The idea that it might was surely a strong motive for bringing the issue on to the agenda, but there are good reasons to suspect Cameron may have scored an own goal on this front. Voters already think he is more liberal than his party, and the gay marriage debate has provided ample evidence to support this view. Conservative opponents have had a great deal of media airtime, which they have used to broadcast some rather antiquated views about marriage and gay relationships. In Tuesday’s vote more than half of Conservative MPs voted against the proposal, or abstained, even as the other parties voted overwhelmingly in favour.

The image of “senior local Conservatives” – all men, all grey haired, in suits and Barbour jackets – delivering a petition in opposition to gay marriage at No 10 on Sunday is not likely to encourage voters to see the Conservatives as a modernised, inclusive party. Rather than convince voters the party had changed, the gay marriage debate looks set to reinforce the perception that a socially liberal PM has tried, but failed, to bring the grumpy old men in his party into line with mainstream British public opinion.

The gay marriage debate may also worsen a second image problem for the Conservatives. As MPs and prominent media figures queue up to assail their Prime Minister, the issue is likely to reinforce perceptions that the Conservatives are divided. There is no shortage of other evidence for this – backbench plots against the leadership on the front pages of newspapers, and a regular drumbeat of criticism of the government over all manner of policies from discontents who blame Cameron for failing to win a majority, or failing to stand up to the Liberal Democrats, or failing on the deficit, or economic growth, or welfare reform. The list goes on and on.

The endless criticism and internal strife has started to register strongly with the electorate – in a YouGov poll on 5th February 71% of voters said they regarded the Conservatives as divided – the highest figure YouGov have recorded since starting to ask the question in 2003, and 54 point up on 2008. This is an ominous figure: public perceptions of government competence are a key driver of vote choice, and divided parties are generally regarded as less competent than unified ones. News reports showing a large cast of Tory MPs attacking their leader over gay marriage will not help rebuild an image of unity. Meanwhile, UKIP stand ready to welcome socially conservative voters opposed to the change with open arms, having expressed strong opposition to gay marriage (an interesting position given their professed “libertarian” ideology).

Our polling suggests David Cameron’s first big idea of 2013 – the Big Fat Euro Referendum – did nothing to boost his party’s prospects, while his second big idea – gay marriage – may damage them. The prospect of a pasting in the 2014 European Parliament elections will loom ever larger as 2013 wears on. If Cameron wants to turn around his party’s fortunes, and stem the leak of voters to UKIP, he needs to find some proposals that are popular with his MPs, his activists and the electorate at large, and acceptable to his coalition partners. No one ever said being Prime Minister was easy.

Rob Ford, Will Jennings and Mark Pickup

More on those Conservative marital problems

It was clear even before the 2010 election that there was the potential for clashes between the Conservative leadership and their MPs on issues such as same-sex marriage.  An article published in 2009 noted that ‘David Cameron, and especially George Osborne are much more socially liberal than much of their parliamentary party, and that split will need to be handled carefully’. Last night’s votes on the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill provided the first real chance to measure the gap between leaders and led.

One well-used indicator to measure the extent to which a political party splits is called the Index of Party Unity; very simply, the majority percentage minus the minority percentage, divided by 100. A united party will score 1.0, a party split down the middle will score 0.0. The scores for the Second Reading vote last night, which was a free vote for all the three main parties, were:

Lib Dem                0.84

Lab:                        0.82

Con:                       0.04

So all the parties splintered but the Conservatives split, right down the middle, with a narrow majority of MPs voting opposing the Bill’s Second Reading.  Labour and the Lib Dems were more or less equally united in favour.  The definition of what Lowell in 1908 called a ‘party vote’ is one in which 90% of those voting vote together, and on that definition both the Lib Dems and Labour achieved party votes.

Splitting down the middle as the Conservatives did is not unknown.  During the votes in 2003, for example, over House of Lords reform one division – on the vote for an 80% elected House – saw the Conservative IPU hit 0.02.  There was a vote in 1997 on gun control during which the Liberal Democrats pulled off a perfect 50:50 split, scoring 0.  Despite the party’s reputation as pro-capital punishment, the last time the House of Commons discussed restoring the death penalty, in 1994, the Conservative IPU was just 0.09.

Nor, as we pointed out here, is it entirely unknown to see a Prime Minister in the lobbies with a minority of their party.  It’s not even the first time David Cameron has found himself in a minority of his own party as leader. In March 2007, for example, Conservative MPs divided 25:75 against the draft Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations.  David Cameron was one of just 29 Conservative MPs to back the measure.

Those Conservative MPs to vote for same-sex marriage this week were disproportionately female, younger, and from the new 2010 intake.  Of those to vote (and exclude any double vote abstentions), Conservative women split 61:39 in favour of same-sex marriage; men were split 46:54 against. Those Conservative MPs born before 1970 split 45:55 against, but those born in 1970 or after split 58:42 in favour.  And those from the new 2010 intake split exactly 50:50, whereas those from earlier intakes were 46:54 against.

The problem for David Cameron is that two of these groups of disproportionate support are relatively small whilst amongst the numerically large 2010 intake, support may be stronger than amongst the older lags but it was hardly overwhelming.  At every one of the last three elections there have been claims about how the new intake of Conservative MPs would be more socially liberal, and shift the balance of power in the party.  The reality has always been more mixed.

Less noticed last night amidst the hoo-ha of the Second Reading vote there were also three smaller whipped rebellions over the programme motion, the carry over motion, and even the money resolution.  A total of 43 Coalition MPs – 41 Conservatives and two Liberal Democrats – voted against the Government on one or more of these three motions, and against a three-line whip. The antis are clearly not intending to go quietly. There will be trouble ahead when the Bill comes back from committee, let alone before it reaches the House of Lords.

Philip Cowley and Mark Stuart

Five things about the gay marriage vote


Source: Mike Smithson, 

The Second Reading of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill – the Bill to introduce civil marriage for same sex couples – comes before the House of Commons today. Here are five things to think about:

1. If things go as expected, the vote will be one of the rare occasions when the split in the House of Commons (roughly) equals that in the public.  Not only will there be an overall majority in favour – as most polls indicate there is amongst the public – but the splits within the parties will be broadly similar to those of their supporters (as in the graph above).  The Lib Dems and Labour will be broadly in favour, with the Conservatives being very deeply split.  Some estimates are that the Conservatives will split right down the middle – with around 120 voting yes, 120 voting no, and 60 being absent – a similar split to that of Conservative voters.  So this issue will divide MPs pretty much as it divides the public, not something you could say of, for example, abortion, where the deep party splits in the Commons are not present amongst the general public.

2. There’s nothing unusual about deep splits over issues like this. For those asking, can you ever remember an occasion when a Prime Minister was in charge of such a divided party, we say: you bet we can.  In 2004, on a free vote, Tony Blair went into a lobby to oppose an outright ban on fox hunting with just 24 of his MPs (8% of those to vote); in the other lobby were the remaining 92% of Labour MPs.  Compared to that, the split currently seen on the Tory benches right now looks mild.

3. What is unusual therefore is not the intra-party divisions themselves – but the venom that appears to be accompanying them among Conservative MPs, given that this is being decided by a free vote and no one is being whipped to take up a position they oppose.  Free votes normally take the poison out of arguments like this; it’s one of the very reasons they get used.  Of course, many of those who oppose the measure are upset/angry/annoyed because they know that the make-up of the Commons means that they will almost certainly lose and see the Bill passed; but many of them are also people who talk a lot about the importance of Parliament being sovereign, and able to make decisions, which is what is happening here.

4. Free votes are usually seen as one of life’s good things – the shackles taken off MPs, who are allowed to vote with their conscience, and so on.  In 2006 the Guardian made free votes the subject of one of its ‘In Praise of…’ leaders (‘they allow MPs to show individual responsibility and to rise above their role as lobby fodder – and that can only be good for parliamentary democracy’) after the government allowed free votes on its Smoking Bill.  This time, however, there has been considerable pressure on the Labour Party, in particular, to apply a whip to the issue, activists arguing that the party should take a stance on the issue rather than effectively opt out, and being annoyed when the party decided not to do so.  There’s a lot to this argument. The line between what is and is not an ‘issue of conscience’ suitable for a free vote has always been ill-defined and amorphous (often owing much to calculations of party advantage than anything else) and in a party-centred political system in which voters know little about the views of individual candidates and where MPs divide down party lines, even when the whip is off, having free votes on high profile issues like this has always been problematic.  They have often allowed political elites to pass policy with which the general public was not in agreement, without much accountability being involved. Indeed, for many, especially on the liberal/progressive wing, that was part of the appeal.  Making these issues part of a political dividing line between the parties, however, may not be as straight-forward as it seems.  It may work on gay marriage (where the public broadly share the views of those in favour), but it could cause real problems on issues such as abortion.

5. Note, however, that having a free vote at Second Reading does not mean having repeated free votes throughout the Bill’s passage.  Even today, we expect the government to whip the programme motion timetabling the bill – and on which there may well be a decent-sized Conservative rebellion – and then to whip much of the rest of the Bill’s passage, certainly amendments that might be seen as undermining (‘wrecking’) the nature of the Bill.  So we expect lots more trouble on the Conservative benches as the Bill works its way through the Commons.

Philip Cowley and Mark Stuart

Gay Marriage, Conservative Divorce?

‘Prediction is very difficult’, said Niels Bohr, ‘especially if it’s about the future’ – and it’s always potentially embarrassing when you revisit things you wrote and in which you had confidently predicted what was to come.

Take, for example, this 2009 article, looking at the likely state of the Conservative Parliamentary Party after the election.

It argued the party would look very different: lots of new MPs, more women, more from ethnic minorities, although no less middle class than before.  That was at least right, if fairly easy to predict.  It went on to argue that in the short term this would be good for the whips, because new MPs are less rebellious, but that balancing their demands with those of the more established MPs  would cause problems of party management. That was (at best) only half right, with the new MPs being far more rebellious than expected.

It also argued that there was a group of existing rebellious Conservative MPs whose behaviour was unlikely to change, and of those it identified almost all have indeed continued to cause trouble for the whips (save for the most rebellious of the lot, Ken Clarke, who finds himself in the Cabinet – but let’s see how long that lasts…). And it argued that whilst there would be backbench trouble ahead, there would at least be a short honeymoon. That one proved almost completely wrong; the honeymoon was so short as to be non-existent.

When it came to the issues that might trigger discontent, it argued that predicting which issues would cause difficulties for in government was ‘a bit of a mug’s game: too much depends on the circumstances in which legislation is introduced, how it is handled by ministers and so on’. But it argued there ‘are several issues where at least the potential for trouble is clear’, of which ‘the most obvious’ was Europe.  So, again, correct, if fairly obvious.

The other area highlighted was issues ‘such as abortion, Lords reform and homosexuality’.  Whilst not traditionally high politics, these issues can often be defused at least in part by allowing backbenchers to vote as they please, but as the example of fox hunting showed after 1997, such issues can matter to backbenchers more than some traditionally important ones.  And (as the 2009 piece noted), based on their voting thus far, ‘David Cameron, and especially George Osborne are much more socially liberal than much of their parliamentary party, and that split will need to be handled carefully’.

Abortion has already caused some headaches.  The vote on gay marriage – which has been promised before the next election – will be another good test of this thesis.  Whilst the Conservative Party’s relationship with the issue of gay rights is more complicated than it first seems – as the excellent new book Tory Pride and Prejudice shows – the stance of the majority of Conservative MPs over the last few years has been predominantly hostile to moves to liberalize the law, whenever they’ve been given a chance.

In March 2007 for instance, 85 Conservative MPs voted against the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2007, which brought into force provisions for gay adoption. This dwarfed the 29 Conservative votes for, on a free vote, which included David Cameron.

It is true that the majority of those Conservative MPs to vote – again on a free vote – backed the Civil Partnership Bill itself in 2004 at both Second and Third Reading, but on a lowish turnout in both cases, and when it came to the detail of the bill many dug their heels in.  By Third Reading, the division was 43 Conservatives for, 39 against, with the rest absent.  Our suspicion is that there will also be a lot of convenient absences over gay marriage.

Much will depend on how the mass of new MPs behave.  Conventional wisdom is that they are more socially liberal than those they replaced.  Maybe so, but by how much?  One other point made in that 2009 paper is that it is not easy to read directly across from attitudes claimed when outside the Commons to those inside, and we’ve so far had relatively little hard evidence on which to judge claims about the new intake.  There have been just over 40 free votes since the 2010 election, but many have not been on issues that would provide much or any insight into how the new MPs will vote on an issue like gay marriage.  Until they vote, like everyone else, we’re just guessing.

Philip Cowley and Mark Stuart