The Thick of It

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Monday, October 24, 2011

Should we have a referendum on EU membership?

Every time I hear a Europhobic Tory MP tell us how the country is crying out for a referendum on the UK's continued membership of the EU I wonder which people they are talking about. I really don't think most ordinary people worry about it that much.

Tory MPs are not ordinary people though and they are absolutely obsessed with the EU. The last two elections have seen a marked increased in anti-Europe MPs being elected for the Tories, making them a much more anti-party today than they were in the 1990s when the issue ripped John Major's government to pieces. That and the sex scandals.

Just after the 2010 election I appeared on a LBC radio debate. I sat opposite rather smug looking Tory and Lib Dems. They congratulated each other on how the coalition agreement was going to lead to seamless and untroubled governing. I thought otherwise. There is only so much you can pro-actively predict. I suggested then that something would come along, divide the coalition and the Tory party. That would be Europe.

They laughed at me.

How I laugh now.

Whenever opinion polls have asked people whether they want to pull out of the EU, as those Tories calling for a referendum do - this isn't about "choice", it is about going solo - they show a spit country. Today that shows 49% in favour of pulling out and 40% want to keep the status quo. Whether that result would stay the same once people were properly educated about the pros and cons of EU membership is quite another matter.

What we can be certain of is that David Cameron is going to have to waste significant political energy on the issue. This will eat away at energy better spent on fixing a rather broken EU and a creaking British economy. And for him, on trying to stop becoming an ever more unpopular prime minister.

Those anti-European Tories probably don't care about damaging their leader, because in their eyes, he betrayed them by signing up with the Lib Dems.

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