Monday, July 05, 2010

Tories pick anti-euro campaigners to lead 'no to AV' referendum drive.

The Tories are in a tricky spot when it comes to the AV referendum. They want it to fail, but they don't want to wreck their coalition with the Liberal Democrats. To that end, several high flying Tories are prepared to take a back seat when it comes to campaigning against AV.

William Hague, the foreign secretary, announced today that he would follow the example of David Cameron and play a low-key role in the no campaign.

His comments came as Downing Street lined up two loyalists to play leading roles in the no campaign to ensure the referendum does not turn into a bloody battle with the Lib Dems.

Lord Leach of Fairford, the Tory peer who helped bankroll the anti-euro Business for Sterling pressure group, and the Tory MP George Eustice, a former leading light from that campaign, will be key figures. Leach helped fund Cameron's office before he became leader and Eustice served as the prime minister's press secretary for the first two years of his leadership of the Tory party.

The signals from the Tory leadership came as Clegg prepares to announce on Tuesday that the referendum will be held on 5 May next year, the same date as the English local elections and the elections to the devolved bodies. Voters will be asked whether they want to replace Britain's first-past-the-post electoral system with the alternative vote, in which candidates are ranked in order of preference.

Conservative MPs warned Cameron last week they will oppose the date of the referendum. They believe 5 May has been chosen to maximise turnout, increasing the chances of a yes vote. The Tories also plan to demand a high threshold – possibly of 40% of the eligible electorate – to make it more difficult to win a yes vote.

Asking for 40% of the eligible electorate to vote in order to pass this is simply a joke. There is no way that Clegg could accept such a thing, which is indicative of the tight rope that both the Tories and the Liberal Democrats are going to have to walk as they bring about the vote which made this coalition possible.

Cameron and Hague are being wise in promising to take a back seat. Their backbenchers are going to make so much noise that the coalition is going to strain under the pressure. They don't need to add to that.

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