Overnight, as Tim Montgomerie somewhat breathlessly reports on the website Conservative Home, news arrives from Thurrock that 90% of the Queen's subjects there want a referendum on Britain leaving the EU. Not having kept as close an eye on Thurrock as perhaps one should I was instantly both intrigued and alarmed. What is going on down there amid the marsh flats, docks and shopping malls? How is it that the locals have spontaneously arisen to demand an exit strategy from the tyranny of Europe? Is this but one of their demands and, if so, what else do they want? Independence for Basildon? A flat-rate income tax? No more re-runs of Tracy Beaker? Above all, are they about to march on the Capital where, presumably, David Cameron will head them off at Smithfield, let Boris Johnson kill their leader, before posing as their captain himself, changing his mind and having them all executed?
The truth, of course, is somewhat more prosaic. A ginger group called the "People's Pledge Campaign" set up the ballot among Thurrockians and persuaded nearly 15,000 of them to send back their papers, most of them marked in the affirmative. A high proportion of votes were apparently cast by text, though the detailed breakdown of the result does not record how many people voted "yes LoL". Anyway it all sounds rather iffy, though an independent scrutineer, Electoral Reform Services, appears to be satisfied with the process.
Naturally enough, Mr Ian McKenzie of the Pledge campaign professes himself delighted. "Heads in the sand is no longer a viable strategy", he thundered, "the people of Thurrock have taken it off the table". The sitting MP for Thurrock and her Labour opponent, he told the Guardian, "cannot stick their fingers in their ears, or they are half the politicians I think they are". The message from Thurrock, it is evident, is not nearly as mixed as Mr McKenzie's metaphors. Perhaps Jackie Doyle, the aforementioned Thurrock member, will be half a politician enough to remember to take her fingers out of her ears before she puts her head in the sand. Certainly she would be well-advised to do so before her grain-sunken skull gets taken off the table.
And put where precisely? Well, as Mr McKenzie would no doubt be eager to explain, almost certainly into David Cameron's pipe so that he can smoke it. The Pledge campaign we should be clear has got nothing to do with measuring the level of national support for a referendum on Europe. If it were, it wouldn't be in the business of sending out loaded and vaguely aggressive questions ("Voters should be given a referendum....Agree or disagree?) to people in one small corner of the country whose demographics would suggest a greater than average propensity to dislike the EU in the first place. Tilbury was where Queen Elizabeth launched the fight against the Spanish Armada and people there have long memories. It is not a place where Herman van Rompuy, say, would want to get lost after dark.
The views of 15,000 people from South Essex are not, much as we might wish it otherwise, representative of the country as a whole, any more than, thank God, are the views of 15,000 people from Islington. But this is not the point. Thurrock was chosen because Ms Doyle, a Conservative, has a majority of 92. Therefore she might be thought particularly sensitive to losing votes, and therefore her seat, to a candidate standing in the next election who wanted a referendum. Ms Doyle might then, the theory runs on, be able to rescue her position by being in favour of a referendum herself. I wouldn't believe it for a second. All the evidence suggests that UKIP will field candidates against any other who would not personally promise to push the button on a nuclear first strike on Brussels themselves. Such is the nuanced nature of EU politics.
There will be a hundred or so People's Pledge referenda we are told, all in marginal Conservative seats. Mr Cameron will end up being assailed by so many of his backbenchers that he gives in and makes an in/out referendum on Europe official party policy. The sage-like Mr Montgomerie seems to think that this will be the only way to "unite the Tory family", though the prime minister is not conspicuous for his taking much notice of what his backbenchers think. Mr Cameron may be a man of strong family convictions, but when it comes to the Tory family he seems to prefer disunity to unity. Of course, if Thurrock had voted in favour of a gay referendum on the EU, things might have turned out differently.