John Rentoul: Cameron's position is No but Yes

The Prime Minister can't admit to hoping May's referendum will bring a change in the electoral system

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I missed that bit in the Bible where Jesus said: "Blessed are they that rank the candidates in order of preference: for they shall be justly represented." Fortunately, 10 Anglican bishops, having consulted the most learned authorities and corrected some of the mistranslations of the original Greek, have come to the rescue. Last week they laid out the theological case for the Alternative Vote (AV), which will be put to a referendum in May.

Michael Langrish, the Bishop of Exeter, said: "Voting systems are not value-free. I am supporting a change on the grounds of justice and accountability." It is a quintessentially Anglican interpretation of the episcopal calling, but who am I to argue? I agree with him, and the bishops are part of the strategy with the best chance of winning a Yes vote.

That is the anti-politics strategy, by which AV is presented as the option the politicians don't want because it gives more choice to the voters. Thus the Yes campaign wants to be fronted by bishops, pop stars and actors rather than MPs, and is quite happy to see the No campaign identified with John Prescott and Margaret Beckett.

If the Yes campaign can make this work, it has a chance of winning this thing. This still seems unlikely, but I may have been hasty in writing the obituary of electoral reform in November. My argument then was the Labour Party had turned decisively against it, deciding, possibly wrongly, that AV would make coalitions more likely and, understandably, that it didn't like coalitions.

Since then, The Independent on Sunday asked ComRes to put the official question to likely voters, "cold", without any explanation – that is, the way most voters will come across the ballot paper in the polling booths on 5 May – and found a 6-point lead for Yes. YouGov, which tries to explain AV before asking the question, reports consistent leads for No. This is not encouraging, but it may be because its explanation starts by saying: "The Conservative-Liberal Democrat government are committed to holding a referendum."

In the teeth of such apathy and ignorance, the referendum may be decided by the the force with which the No-people can counter the anti-politics strategy of the Yes-people. The most aggressive counter-strategy was set out with commendable clarity in the New Statesman last week by Tim Montgomerie, internet spokesman for the Tory party membership: "An all-out attack on Clegg's screeching U-turn on tuition fees may be the best chance of keeping first-past-the-post, but will Cameron sanction a campaign that is so hostile to his deputy?"

That is, of course, number 499 in my series of Questions to Which the Answer is No. The best way for the No campaign to harness anti-politics sentiment to its cause would undoubtedly be to say that Nick Clegg wants us to vote Yes; to hammer him as a politician who cannot be trusted; and to attack the Liberal Democrats for advocating a change that is in their self-interest, because it would more or less guarantee that they would have more MPs than under the existing system.

None of these are things that the Prime Minister wants to do. Of course, when pressed, he will say that he is opposed to AV. But in private he tends to say that it will be "very interesting" to see how the referendum campaign works out – suggesting that he intends to do his "floatabove" trick of playing the part of national leader observing benevolently the antics of the little people from Mount Olympus.

This was an issue for right-wing Conservative MPs from the start of the coalition. But it is more serious now, not least because Clegg suffered so much damage to his reputation over tuition fees that he needs more desperately some trophy that he can parade from the platform at his party conference this autumn. A change to the voting system, even if AV was once dismissed by Clegg as a "miserable little compromise", is now regarded as vitally important by Lib Dem members.

It is not hard to work out, therefore, that it is in Cameron's interest for the No campaign to go easy on Clegg and even for the Yes campaign to win. The Prime Minister knows that it might cost the Conservatives a few seats at the expense of the Lib Dems, but I suspect that this is outweighed by the political advantage not just of strengthening the junior party in the coalition, but of strengthening its support for the coalition. AV might also have the advantage of an insurance policy, in that it allows parties to advise their supporters how to allocate their preferences, so the Tories and Lib Dems would have no need of a formal pact to encourage their voters to support each other.

But if we can work that out, so too can Tory backbenchers who are hostile to change. That is why two officers of the 1922 Committee went public last week to warn Cameron to adopt a "more robust attitude". Andrew Grice's report in The Independent was an important moment. Mark Pritchard, secretary of the 1922, told Grice that "many colleagues" felt that the £250,000 allocated from Tory funds to the No campaign was "insufficient". And Brian Binley, its treasurer, said there was "real concern" that Cameron intended to soft-pedal in the referendum campaign.

You bet he does. The question is how far his backbenchers will let him get away with it. The No campaign will be less effective without the Tories' money. And, although Cameron is a politician in an anti-politics climate, he has more authority as Prime Minister, and is the most respected of the three party leaders according to the opinion polls. His foot on the brake counts for something.

This referendum could be decided by the quality of the relationship between coalition partners – not that between the Tories and the Lib Dems, but that between the Prime Minister's party and the Tory right wing on the back benches.

twitter.com/JohnRentoul; independent.co.uk/jrentoul

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