Aljoscha Kertesz: In the past few weeks more than 100 Tory MPs have founded “Conservatives for Britain”. How influential is this new group?
Tim Bale: They represent almost a third of the parliamentary party and will guarantee that pressure is put on David Cameron to get something substantive rather than merely symbolic from his renegotiation. Whether that pressure will actually deliver something is another matter!
Kertesz: Does it mean that one third of the parliamentarian Conservative party is genuinely Eurosceptic?
Bale: I would say that three-thirds, give or take a handful or two, of Conservative MPs are Eurosceptic. The majority, however, are ‘soft’ rather than ‘hard’ Eurosceptics (or Europhobes): they want reform of the EU (and a looser relationship with it) but they don’t want to leave.
Kertesz: How big a problem is that going to be for Prime Minister David Cameron over the next few years?
Bale: The main danger for Cameron is that his ‘hard’ Eurosceptics, and some of the softer ones, either push him into asking too much from the other member states or even force him to recommend a no vote in the referendum – something he wants to avoid doing at all costs. In reality, they will make life difficult but not impossible: in the end it’s the public that Cameron has to persuade, not the obsessives on his back (or indeed front) benches.
Kertesz: David Cameron seems to be in a similar position as John Major. Will we see a re-run of John Major´s premiership?
Bale: I doubt it because the referendum – at least until it’s over – operates as something as a safety valve: ultimately, the Europhobes will have to focus on the persuading electorate rather than on their leader, even if they regard him as having sold them out. After the referendum, presumably we stay in the EU, however, they could make trouble – but by then Cameron will be planning his retirement from the leadership anyway!
Kertesz: What makes you sure that David Cameron is not going to get into the same situation as John Major?
Bale: I think Major was in more trouble because Europe was the tip of the iceberg: many of his most implacable enemies felt he had betrayed the legacy of Thatcher and the rest of the party came to see him as a weak, loser who was no match for Tony Blair. Thatcher was a long time ago, David Cameron is still a winner, and Labour doesn’t have a Tony Blair!
Kertesz: You have just finished a study into demographics, motivations, opinions and activities of ordinary party members. It showed that the grassroots are more pro Europe than the Parliamentarian Party. So how Europhile are they?
Bale: They aren’t Europhile, but they aren’t as Europhobic as some imagine. Most don’t like the EU but can be persuaded by Cameron that he’s negotiated a deal good enough to mean we should vote to stay in.
“Tory grassroots aren’t anything like as ideological and impractical as left-wingers like to think”
Kertesz: How many party members were surveyed?
Bale: We surveyed around 5 or 6,000 all told, about 1200 of whom were Tory members.
Kertesz: These results seem to be good news for David Cameron?
Bale: The results are good news because – not for the first time – research suggests that the Tory grassroots aren’t anything like as ideological and impractical as left-wingers like to think and right-wingers like to dream.
Kertesz: How do you explain the stark difference between the Conservative grassroots and the Parliamentary Party?
Bale: There’s a popular misconception that ordinary members are the zealots and MPs, like the voters, are the pragmatists. Actually, research into lots of parties and their supporters, often shows that this is not the case. Professional politicians go into politics for all sorts of reasons, a big one being that they are ‘true-believers.’
Kertesz: What do the results mean for Prime Minister?
Bale: They are comforting because they give the lie to any Europhobic MP who claims to be representing the bulk of the Tory party in the country. In fact, the PM is more representative.
Kertesz: How well organised are the pro-Europeans within the Conservative Party?
Bale: Real Europhiles are in a tiny minority – you can count them on the fingers of one or two hands. And they are not well organised: the odd pamphlet, a website or two, but not much more than that.
Kertesz: How come that the media and airwaves are by and large dominated by the Eurosceptics within the Conservative Party?
Bale: Because they are well organised – and they are colourful characters putting forward a very clear case which resonates with audiences: just what news and current affairs producers like!
Kertesz: How can David Cameron go about the other government business when he will be hugely occupied keeping the party ranks together over Europe?
Bale: It will be a massive distraction but he only has himself to blame for appeasing the sceptics in the last parliament by promising a referendum. Mind you, Prime Ministers are used to having to keep lots of plates spinning at the same time. They rarely crash as loudly or as often as their opponents hope!
Kertesz: Which scenario do you envisage? Will we see more defections to UKIP?
Bale: I think Cameron will do enough of a deal with other member states to be able to recommend a yes vote and the public, with the help of the other parties, business and at least some of the media, will vote to stay in the EU. But that’s just my educated guess…
Kertesz: Which tasks lie ahead for David Cameron?
Bale: He has to keep the economy recovering at the same time as reducing spending – and do the latter in such a way as to protect the public services (particularly health) that are electorally crucial.
“The Labour Party’s ordinary members are massively pro staying in the EU”
Kertesz: How can David Cameron reconcile Eurosceptics and Europhiles within his party?
Bale: He can’t reconcile them – he can just hold things together until the referendum, and after that it’ll be someone else’s concern!
Kertesz: Where do the three likely successors of David Cameron stand on Europe (Theresa May, Boris Johnson, George Osborne)?
Bale: They are all sceptical but only Johnson is prepared to flirt with the idea of actually leaving – but I suspect that that flirting is all it is: it suits him to hint to phobic MPs that he’s on their side since he’ll want their votes in a leadership contest
Kertesz: How about the Labour Party? Do we see the same split over Europe between the Parliamentarian Party and the grassroots?
Bale: No – the Labour Party’s ordinary members are massively pro staying in the EU.
Kertesz: So Labour seems to be in a better position?
Bale: In party management terms, yes. But Labour has to be careful, since it wants to win an election in a Eurosceptic country, not to be seen to be too enthusiastic.
Kertesz: Are you suggesting that the pro-European stance could be problematic for Labour?
Bale: As long as it’s reasonably pragmatic and qualified, it shouldn’t damage the party too much electorally. Remember the EU rarely features heavily in people’s thoughts when they are voting at a general election. Labour is worried about losing votes to UKIP – but it’s immigration and a general sense of disconnect that’s driving that rather than an argument over Europe.
“Labour candidates arn’t that big”
Kertesz: Which impact will the outcome of the leadership election have for Labour´s involvement in the referendum campaign?
Bale: The differences between the three candidates who most people give a chance of winning – Burnham, Cooper and Kendall – aren’t that big. More a question of tone than anything.
Kertesz: Andy Burnham has voiced this concern. Do you think Labour might take a backseat in the in/out campaign for vote winning reasons?
Bale: I doubt it will take a backseat – that would look like a dereliction of responsibility. I think what we’ll see is Labour not wanting to be seen to be cosying up to closely to other parties, fighting its own, private yes campaign, if you like.
Kertesz: In your study you interviewed many Labour grassroots as well. Does your study provide any hint as to who will most likely lead the party in September?
Bale: Our survey showed it was very much anyone’s contest – Burnham probably starts out as favourite but lots of people are still making up their minds.
Kertesz: So it is going to be an interesting campaigning summer?
Bale: For Labour supporters, maybe. For good or ill, the public aren’t paying much attention to the leadership contest. For the majority of voters, it will only get interesting toward the end if it’s still a close race.
Did you like the conversation? Read one with Edi Rama: "Europe should not be afraid of being Europe"