A British politician’s demand for an early referendum on the UK’s European Union membership was all but shot down this week, but has highlighted a growing divide in government thinking.
Adam Afriyie isn’t a name known to most. This is despite him representing the historic constituency of Windsor, and becoming a self-made millionaire from almost nothing. But, on October 5, his name was in an unusual location – in the byline of a feature in a popular Sunday newspaper, in which he proudly announced his proposal to bring the date for a referendum on EU membership forward.
“Only by setting an early date can we kick-start EU renegotiation talks and give the British people what they so clearly want – a say on our country’s future with Europe,” he wrote in the piece.
But his party – who form the largest portion of the ruling coalition – do not share his view. Even fellow Conservative eurosceptics were afraid to align with him, fearing rifts in party politics. Out of the 147 new Tories elected in 2010, the number who have not signed a bill asking him to drop his suggestion can be counted on one hand.
James Wharton, the MP who originally put forward the suggestion to move the referendum date forward, labelled Afriyie’s proposed amendment “bizarre and ill conceived”.
“An attempt to force an earlier referendum does have some superficial appeal,” Wharton wrote on the ConservativeHome website. “The reality though is that all such an amendment will do is make success less likely.”
The debate draws attention to an increasing uncertainty over the value of EU membership in a government that historically has always seemed to be strongly behind the Union. After all, the United Kingdom was the third-biggest financial contributor last year, injecting the EU with 4.7 billion euros.
The Liberal Democrats have already made it clear they wish for the country to remain a member state, with leader Nick Clegg stating such a decision would be “economic suicide“.
Stephen Tinsdale of the London-based think tank Centre for European Reform, argues that party politics make it very difficult for Union membership to even become a discussion point. “In the past it divided the left, but Euroscepticism now divides the right,” he says.
“[Afriyie’s proposal] will stay as an idea, but won’t happen because it would be impossible for the Liberal Democrats to stay coalition partners while arguing on different sides in a referendum,” he adds. “Labour, the opposition to the coalition, won’t support an early referendum because they’re pro-EU and think Brits would vote to get out.”
Afriyie’s proposed amendment seems mistimed and arguably unnecessary. A referendum is looking very likely to be part of the Conservative party’s manifesto in 2015, likely aiming to draw voters away from separatist parties such as UKIP.
But all Afriyie seems to have done in the short term is whip up bickering within his own party, and with such a delicate balance of power this isn’t likely to be a good move.