‘What they really think on Planet Tory’ (with Philip Cowley), Daily Telegraph, 1 February 2016

When The Telegraph broke the parliamentary expenses scandal back in 2009, many wondered what planet MPs were living on. In fact, they live on two. When it comes to their views on the EU, Tories in Westminster really are from Mars, while Labour MPs are from Venus.

We know this because, after hearing so many best-guesses about how many MPs, particularly on the Government benches, were going to come out for Brexit, we decided to find out for ourselves. Together with Anand Menon, director of the Economic and Social Research Council’s UK in a Changing Europe initiative, we commissioned Ipsos Mori’s Reputation Centre to conduct a survey of MPs, designed to tap into what they really think.

As well as allowing us to make a more accurate and up-to-date assessment of how Tory MPs are likely to vote in the referendum, our survey revealed stark differences between the two main parties.

We knew those differences were there, of course – how could it be otherwise, after decades during which any ambitious Tory was obliged to demonstrate hostility to the EU to stand any chance of selection for a winnable seat, while enthusiasm for Europe was one of the few things that seemed to unite Labour’s Left and Right.

But, surely, wasn’t some of this just for show? Apparently not. The differences between Tory and Labour MPs on the EU’s past, present, and future are deep, even visceral.

Almost 90 per cent of Labour MPs agreed that “the UK has greatly benefited from being a member of the EU”. To them it means freedom to travel, study and work anywhere in Europe; prosperity; a stronger say in the world and even peace. Britain’s membership makes them hopeful, proud and happy.

On Planet Tory, however, things look very different. Only a quarter of Conservative MPs can see any great benefits from Britain belonging to the EU. “Uneasy” was the watchword for most of them, and some even said that our membership made them “angry”. To them, the EU means bureaucracy, lack of border controls and a waste of money.

There was just as big a difference when it came to specific policies. Nearly three-quarters of Conservative MPs supported the idea that EU citizens should only be able to claim benefits in their country of origin – a proposal that attracted the support of less than a third of Labour MPs.

Some say the issue of Europe cuts across conventional political divides. And, true, there are divisions in both the major Westminster parties. It’s possible to find a handful of Tories who, while they don’t buy wholesale into the European project, are prepared to give it its due. Likewise, there are a few Labour Eurosceptics. But any divisions within the parties pale compared with the division between them. The EU really is much more an inter-party split than an intra-party one.

For all this, though, there is widespread and perhaps surprising agreement on one thing among MPs on both sides of the House. Regardless of how they themselves are going to vote, clear majorities of both Conservative and Labour MPs think that the referendum will result in Britain remaining part of the EU.

Particularly on Planet Tory, that thinking could have big implications for the referendum itself. Many Conservative MPs, especially those in the 2010 and 2015 intakes (quite reasonably, given the favour Labour has done them in electing Jeremy Corbyn) are thinking about promotion. As a result, they are bound to wonder, whatever their real feelings, whether there’s much point campaigning for what so many of them evidently reckon is a lost cause.

If that’s the case, David Cameron may find he has rather less trouble on his hands than his opponents hope, especially if he manages to secure a deal from Brussels on migrant benefits and costly red tape – two things that, according to our survey, Conservative MPs are particularly bothered by.

That doesn’t, of course, mean it will be plain sailing for Mr Cameron from here on in. After all, sceptical Tory MPs have quite a lot in common with voters – surely an advantage for those brave enough to come out for Brexit – as long, that is, as they take care not to appear too obsessive.

But while Mr Cameron may end up taking many of his parliamentary colleagues with him in the referendum, any victory will be far from permanent. Judging by our results at least, Planet Tory will always be emotionally, as well as ideologically, deeply Eurosceptic.


About tpbale

I teach politics at Queen Mary University of London.
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