The UKIP victory in the local elections in England at the start of the month continues to make its impact felt on British politics. After former Tory ministers publicly backed withdrawal, and present Tory ministers indicated that they too would vote out if a vote was held today, Cameron has signalled that his party will publish a draft referendum bill today. As it is not coalition policy (the Liberal Democrats oppose such legislation), it will be introduced as a private member's bill, and will not be passed. The Bill is aimed at setting the referendum for 2017 as a way of "copper-fastening" the referendum so it doesn't depend so much on the outcome of the general election.
Ironically for the party whose rebels staged battles over parliamentary sovereignty in the debates over the EU Bill, the Bill would by its nature seek to bind a later parliament (though it would be for the next parliament to decide whether or not to repeal it).
This Bill confirms the poor state of the Conservative party at the moment. It continues to be rattled and drawn into civil war over the EU, even though the polls showing the +9% boost for UKIP also show a drop in support for the position of leaving the EU (though public opinion is still pretty Eurosceptic). The Conservative party is reeling over its position in the polls, but will its Eurosceptic strategy pay off for it?
It's hard to see it winning over those who have left the party to vote UKIP - this is, after all, the Prime Minister who was hailed by the Eurosceptics of his party for his decision to leave the European People's Party, for his veto of the Fiscal Pact negotiations and his speech on Europe just a few months ago. Cameron's arguably been more Eurosceptic in power - with the Liberal Democrats as coalition partners! - than Thatcher was. The splits and the infighting show the weakness of Cameron as a leader, an indiscipline of the party. Eurosceptic shifts are unlikely to win back voters from UKIP, which is now a party of protest rather than just an anti-EU party, but will probably put off centrist voters that tend to be key in winning elections.
In this vein, Henry Hill has an interesting article on how the Conservative party is dealing with its core-vote-or-centrists dilemma.
The Eurosceptic positioning throws up a strange problem: by constantly reinforcing a negative image of the EU in order to prove Eurosceptic credentials, it will be difficult to portray a renegotiation as a victory and sell the result to the British public. I think the renegotiations are unlikely to bring a major repatriation of powers - opting out the the Justice and Home Affairs area, which is practically current government policy, it a big withdrawal already, so it would have to focus on the limited social and environmental aspects of the single market. Since other Member States will not want their welfare states to be undermined by either a general reduction in standards or undercut by individual country opt-outs, only limited renegotiation is possible.
Essentially, the UK will have opted out of so much, that there's little left but the core project, making it harder for the other countries to concede further. Given the economic condition of the European economy and the previous opposition to Treaty change from the left in many countries, passing a reform of the EU that focuses on the sort of deregulation that the Conservative party seems to want would be incredibly difficult. From a position of bashing the EU and having brought back few changes before putting the deal to an In-or-Out vote, Cameron would be in a weak political position.
If Cameron really believes in his tightrope walk between Euroscepticism and EU Membership, then he's set himself a tough task. He cannot talk too specifically about what needs to be changed, either because he does not know what he wants changed, or he does not want to risk loosing on those negotiating points. He is not strong enough to resist the Eurosceptic right of his party, but the more he appeases them, the more Cameron signals both that voting UKIP affects Conservative policy and he weakens his political position when it comes to his "third way" Euroscepticism.