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Ahead of the Conservative Party conference, Open Europe's Pawel Swidlicki argues that most Tory MPs have not yet made their minds up about which side to support in the EU referendum campaign, and that much will hinge on the credibility of Cameron's EU reform package.
2 October 2015
The Conservative party conference kicks off on Sunday and the EU question will undoubtedly be one of its main talking points, with journalists on the lookout for any signs of division and dissent. With the usual suspects likely to provide plenty of headline material, we thought it would be interesting to gauge the mood within the parliamentary party as a whole, classifying each of the party’s 330 MPs into one of five categories based on their recent public statements on the issue: Firmly In, In leaning, Swing voter, Out leaning and Firmly Out. The results, also featured in The Times today, show that while opponents of membership have a slight edge, contrary to many people’s perceptions, the party as a whole is relatively balanced.
And here is a breakdown by Cabinet level, other frontbenchers and backbenchers:
This is of course based on our own subjective assessment and we will therefore not publish the full list of MPs, not least because some MPs’ views on the matter may have since evolved. While it is not hard to guess how we categorised the likes of Ken Clarke and Bill Cash, in some cases the line between two categories was a very fine one, so we also considered the tone of the statements as well as other factors including party loyalty.
Firmly In: MPs who have indicated they believe EU membership to be so beneficial for Britain that they would vote to stay in regardless of the outcome of the renegotiation.
In leaning: MPs who have not endorsed continued membership under any circumstances but who have acknowledged that membership comes with some benefits and expressed a preference for staying in a reformed EU. The renegotiation would have to be seen as a complete failure for them to join the Out camp.
Swing voters: This group consists both of MPs who are genuinely engaged in the EU debate and are waiting to assess the final renegotiation package as well as MPs for whom the EU is less of a priority, and who will also weigh in other factors such as their prospects for promotion, the closeness of the polls, the attitude of their local party before committing to one side. It is likely that many of these MPs do lean one way or the other but have decided to keep their cards close to their chests for now (this includes much of the new intake).
Out leaning: MPs who have gone beyond saying they would vote to leave on the basis of the status quo (as some swing voters have) by indicating they would expect far-reaching changes to the UK-EU relationship, particularly in the area of immigration, in order to support staying in. They also tend to be much more hostile to the EU in general and less likely to say that the UK benefits meaningfully from membership. Some of these MPs may nonetheless end up (reluctantly) opting to stay in, although the majority will be on the Out side.
Firmly Out: MPs who want to leave the EU no matter what, or those for whom a successful renegotiation would have to include things like include restoring national supremacy over EU law, scrapping free movement and regaining the ability to sign unilateral free trade deals. Most of the MPs in this group are already well known.
The high number of swing voter MPs underlines how important it will be for Cameron to secure a comprehensive and ambitious reform package in order to ensure that the bulk of his party, as well as the wider public, sees any recommendation to remain within the EU as credible. Looking through what Tory MPs have said, opting out of ‘ever closer union’, securing safeguards for non-euro member states, changes to EU free movement rules and pro-competitiveness reforms are the most commonly cited criteria for judging the outcome of the renegotiation – individuals will place greater weight on some of these issues than others. Many know that their constituents are most concerned about immigration, so free movement is a crucial issue.
Therefore, the more progress Cameron can make in these areas, the more likely it is that he will be able to take a large majority of his MPs with him which will not only be an important consideration in winning the referendum itself both in terms of emphasising the credibility of the renegotiation and boosting the In campaign’s presence on the ground, but also for maintaining party unity after the referendum.