Boris Johnson’s surprise rejection of an In/Out referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union last night may have been an attempt to help David Cameron as he prepares to set out his own position on the EU, but the Prime Minister will find he’s not in for an easy ride from his own parliamentary party. As helpful as the Mayor might have been, his intervention has been rather overshadowed by a discussion paper from the Tory party vice chairman, Michael Fabricant, in which the former whip calls for a pact with UKIP.
Fabricant’s plan follows the offer to the Tories which Nigel Farage set out in the pages of the Spectatorin May for joint UKIP/Conservative candidates. It involves the Prime Minister pledging a referendum in exchange for UKIP not standing against Tories in the next general election. The paper says:
‘The United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) is now a significant contributory factor in costing the Conservative Party victories in marginal seats. It is time to consider actively whether a rapprochement might be possible before the 2015 General Election. The basis of any deal is clear: a referendum on the United Kingdom’s future membership of the European Union.’
There are certainly Tory MPs who would find this an attractive prospect to relieve some of the pressure on their 2015 campaigns. Fabricant, who has his ear closer to the ground than most as a campaign organiser fresh from the Corby by-election, believes the pact could yield an extra 20 to 40 seats in 2015 by preventing a loss of votes to Farage’s party. He also suggests Farage should be given a ministerial position, describing the UKIP leader as ‘a former Thatcherite, who sounds like a Conservative, who looks like a Conservative, and in other circumstances probably would be a Conservative’.
This idea will make things difficult for the PM, who is due to give a statement on the EU budget this afternoon. He is always pressed on his stance on Britain’s overall membership of the EU by his backbenchers whenever he speaks in the Chamber on anything vaguely Europe-related, and Boris’ interview yesterday, combined with the Fabricant proposals, won’t diminish their enthusiasm. But it’s a big ask for UKIP, too: Farage would effectively be sacrificing his party’s own chances in the interests of a referendum when he’s trying to promote UKIP as a party with many policies rather than one campaigning on a single issue. He has already tweeted: ‘The Fabricant deal seems to be based on buying me off. UKIP is bigger than that.’ Last night, he said there would be ‘no deals with the Tories; it’s war’. But there’s still the chance that rather than refraining from campaigning against Tory candidates, UKIP tries to field joint candidates with the Conservative party, which is a tempting prospect for those who see the party as their main threat to holding onto their seats.