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Open Europe's Pawel Swidlicki tallies up how Tory MPs have divided on the question of EU membership compared to Open Europe's pre-renegotiation assessment, and looks at the factors that have driven them into declaring for one side or the other.
25 February 2016
Following the conclusion of the UK’s EU renegotiation, Tory MPs have been coming off the fence and declaring their support for the Remain or Leave campaigns, the most prominent of these being of course Justice Secretary Michael Gove and London Mayor Boris Johnson. As we found back in October when we compiled our comprehensive list of where Tory MPs stood on the In/Out question (an exercise since emulated by many other media outlets), almost 2/3 of Tory MPs were swing voters.
So, following the spate of declarations over the past few days, what does the overall picture look like? (Note our standings are based on confirmed declarations either from MPs themselves or from credible media organisations).
As we can see, based on the number of MPs who have formally declared their position, the Remain side leads on 150 – close to the symbolic threshold of 166 (over half of the parliamentary party). Nonetheless, the number of MPs that have come out in favour of Brexit – 124 – is higher than the government was anticipating, which will boost the morale of the Leave campaign.
What makes our list unique is that we have a baseline against which we can make comparisons. Of the MPs supporting Brexit, we identified 60 either as being firmly out or out-leaning, meaning that 58 swing voters have so far declared for Leave (29%) compared to 98 for Remain (48%) which might be of some consolation for Prime Minister David Cameron.
Unsurprisingly, those we identified as being either firmly in or firmly out have stuck to their guns, but some MPs we identified as either in leaning or out leaning have ended up on the complete opposite side; six in leaning MPs have declared for Leave and five out leaning MPs have declared for Remain.
56 MPs are either still undecided or have chosen not to declare. Several MPs in the latter group have done so on the basis they do not want to point their constituents in one direction or the other; for example, Jesse Norman has argued that “the best thing I can do, as a Member of Parliament, is to hold the ring for you, my constituents, and try to pose questions and provide facts which help you to make the decision for yourselves and on your own terms.”
Notwithstanding issues such as personal loyalty and prospects for self-advancement, the crucial factor in determining most open-minded MPs’ voting intentions was the renegotiation. As I argued back in October, the high number of swing voters made it essential for Cameron to secure a comprehensive and ambitious reform package in for his recommendation to remain within the EU to be seen as credible.
Despite some commentators asserting the renegotiation was a sideshow, reading the statements of MPs declaring for both sides, the final package was regarded as an important and in some cases decisive consideration. For example, the Life Sciences Minister George Freeman argued that “With the reforms negotiated by the Prime Minister we are now in a privileged position which reflects what most British people want: to be in the European single market but not run by Europe” Matt Warman wrote that “I am pleasantly surprised by the EU deal the Prime Minister has brought back from Brussels… I’d leave the Europe we are in today; but this hard-won deal changes it significantly and for the better”, while Dr. Tania Mathias noted that “our financial services industry will be protected from EU regulations that are not supported by our government.”
However, on the other side, Andrea Leadsom, Chris Heaton-Harris and several other MPs involved with the Fresh Start project for EU reform declared that “the changes on offer fall far short of the opportunities that we identified, with the vast majority of key underperforming EU policy areas unaddressed.” Suella Fernandes wrote that “I welcome many of the concessions the Prime Minister has been able to secure. But it has become increasingly clear that the scale of change that is required is not possible through an incremental negotiation of the sort we have seen.”
Aside from the renegotiation, Tory MPs who ended up endorsing continued membership cited the lack of evidently superior alternatives to membership – as Sarah Newton noted, “If we leave, we will still be trading and working alongside the European Union but we wouldn’t have a say about the rules.” Business Secretary Sajid Javid, an out-leaning MPs in our original classification argued that while in his view the UK should not have joined the EU and could prosper outside it, “in recent months, we have once again seen storm clouds gathering over the global economy… The fallout from a ‘leave’ vote this summer would only add to economic turbulence that is, quite possibly, about to engulf the world.”
The geopolitical situation was also a factor with Mark Pritchard, another out-leaning MP surprising many by declaring for remain, arguing that “An insecure Europe is a strategic problem for Britain whether or not we remain in the EU. However, by Britain remaining in Europe the likelihood of major crises or conflicts arising on the continent are greatly reduced.” However, this also cut the other way with Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, an MP we identified as In-leaning, arguing that “I used to want Britain to stay in the EU – but it is since the migrant crisis of last year that I have changed my mind. I think Europe could be potentially swamped economically and politically.”
Clearly, with the party so deeply split, questions will inevitably be raised about whether it will be able to hold together in the wake of the referendum. For many it will be relatively easy to move on but for others, some of whom see this as the defining issue in British politics, it will be much harder. Much will hinge on how fair the referendum campaign is seen to be – the government has made a number of concessions including allowing ministers to take their own views but some pro-Brexit MPs are still unhappy about the role of the civil service in supporting the government’s official position.
Either way, the fact that there are so many MPs on each side acts as a guarantee that neither can be completely ignored or marginalised; any post referendum reshuffle will have to include prominent supporters from both camps.