By a Newsnet reporter
Prime Minister David Cameron is coming under increasing pressure from senior figures within the Conservative party to firm up his promise to hold a referendum on EU membership after the next Westminster General Election and to adopt policies to retain Tory voters attracted by UKIP.
Alarmed by the rise of UKIP, and the loss of 335 Conservative council seats in Thursday’s local elections in England and Wales, the Conservatives are seeking ways to prevent the haemorrhaging of Tory voters to the right wing populist party, which seeks withdrawal from the EU and the effective abolition of the Scottish Parliament.
In an effort to forestall the rise of UKIP, Mr Cameron had already promised a referendum on the EU before 2017 if the Tories win the next election. However now senior Conservatives are urging the PM to pass the necessary legislation before the end of this parliament.
Many Conservative MPs argue that introducing legislation now is the best way of ensuring that voters can believe the party when it campaigns during the 2015 General Election. UKIP leader Nigel Farage has highlighted Mr Cameron’s failure to hold a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, which the Prime Minister promised while leader of the opposition.
In an interview with the BBC, former Conservative cabinet minister Norman Tebbit accused Mr Cameron of taking the Conservatives “badly off track” and of getting too close to the Liberal Democrats. He claimed that many people were attracted by UKIP policies, which he described as “politics of the common ground”.
Mr Tebbit added:
“Most people in the country agree we are being mucked around by our friends in Brussels … most people think that immigration is too high … most think that welfare has got out of kilter.”
Mr Tebbit urged Mr Cameron to look at UKIP’s policies and consider which were “really Conservative policies that would be attractive to the party and its traditional voters. And there’s quite a lot of them.”
David Davis, the former Conservative leadership challenger, called on the Prime Minister to introduce legislation for an initial “mandate” referendum, which Mr Davies would like to take place next year, either ahead of, or simultaneously with, the European elections in May.
Speaking to the Observer newspaper, Mr Davies said that an early referendum would be an “absolute UKIP killer”, and added:
“It would massively reinforce the prime minister’s negotiating hand and put some steel in his back. He would be more likely to return from any negotiation with a good deal that would mean we stay in the EU.”
Speaking to the BBC, Conservative Home Secretary Theresa May also spoke in favour of a strengthened commitment to an EU referendum, and said:
“We can look at whether we can give some greater certainty in terms of the referendum. I think what we need to do is to be able to show people that we will hold that referendum, we will hold that referendum after the general election.”
The calls for the Prime Minister to adopt UKIP policies comes after UKIP made spectacular gains in the recent local elections, gaining 23% of the total vote share and 139 council seats.
However, despite the rise of the anti-EU party in England, and to some extent in Wales, there is little sign that UKIP are repeating the same success in Scotland.
Recent Scottish opinion polls have not shown any marked increase in UKIP support in Scotland. The party managed a mere 0.91% of the vote share in the regional seats in the last Holyrood elections in May 2011, and just 0.13% in the constituency seats.
UKIP’s policy for Scottish devolution would see the effective abolition of the Scottish Parliament. The party plans to abolish Holyrood elections and replace MSPs by a Grand Committee made up of Scottish Westminster MPs who would sit as “the Scottish Parliament”.
On its website, UKIP proclaims that it stands “four square behind the unity of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland” and dismissed support for the restoration of a sovereign Scottish state as “wee pretendy independence”.