Peter Bone has written an editorial for the Guardian (an interesting choice) today in which he announces first and foremost that he will not be quitting the Tories for UKIP. Now that he’s said this, it is hard to believe he’s going to just turn around and defect – yet. That last word there is the decisive one for Eurosceptic backbenchers, because the Rochester by-election has made me realise the calculation that’s in front of them.
As Bone rightly says, only another Tory led government can possibly deliver an In/Out referendum. If Cameron is Prime Minister post-May 2015, then either the Conservative Party have a majority (so therefore automatically a referendum) or there has been another coalition with the referendum being part of the deal. This is why it’s actually in the Tory potential defectors interests to bide their time. Once a referendum has been called, then all avenues are open to them. Flee now, and they make it more likely that Labour get in and thus no referendum.
At that point, either Cameron tries to renegotiate the terms of Britain’s continuing membership of the EU and fails, owns up to the failure of this task and announces with a heavy heart that he will be campaigning for Out. This is the best case scenario for the potential Tory-UKIP defectors as everything they want can be achieved through the Conservative Party. Also, they now have both Cameron and Farage, the two most popular frontline politicians in Britain (and isn’t that a sobering thought) both backing an Out vote. This would make an Out vote much more likely, something the Tory MPs who are staying in the Conservative fold have worked out.
More likely, Cameron does some deal involving a few cosmetic changes to Britain’s ongoing involvement in the European Union and announces he will be backing his changes and thus a Stay In vote in the upcoming referendum. Then, the Eurosceptic Tories can threaten Cameron en masse, saying that one-hundred and whatever Tory MPs are joining UKIP the next day unless he has a change of heart and campaigns for Out. Cameron at this point either does switch sides (and then we’re back to the best case scenario from the potential defectors’ perspective) or Cameron weathers the storm and decides to stick to In and hopes that once there’s been a national vote in which the British people have elected to remain part of the European Union, there can be a Conservative-UKIP reconciliation.
Whatever happens, it still makes the most sense to stay with the Tories for now as it is only through the Conservatives remaining in power that a referendum takes place. And that’s the key thing that needs to happen if Britain has any chance of getting Out, their ultimate goal.
Having said all this, there could still easily be some MP defections from the Tories to UKIP in next few months. The heart often trumps the head in politics. And notice that I didn’t get into Labour MP defections to UKIP and the dynamic there, which is, needless to say, very different.