James Wharton’s EU referendum bill will, if passed, make a vote a little more likely. For while after 2015 an Ed Miliband-led Government would almost certainly reverse it, a David Cameron-one almost certainly would not – if for no other reason than that enough Conservative MPs would insist on it happening (driven by a strange melding of conviction and fear). If a 2017 referendum isn’t part of any coalition deal with the Liberal Democrats, such a coalition is most unlikely ever to see the time of day.
The measure is therefore well worth voting for, and Wharton’s timing seems about right. Cameron should be allowed his go at renegotiation and reform. If it doesn’t work, British voters will be reminded of our neighbours’ commitment to the federal project, which will be no bad thing when it comes to a national vote. And if it does work, so much the better. I don’t expect it to, and suspect that in any event the Prime Minister’s renegotiation prospectus will be minimal. But I suppose I could be wrong.
In any event, the great virtue of the Wharton timetable is that it will give voters time to concentrate their minds on what we want from Europe, what our neighbours want, and whether the two are compatible – as Cameron, under this scenario, shuttles back and forth from other EU countries, and the country gets its teeth into the debate. As matters stand, the EU is not a priority for voters (see here, here and here). And a referendum next autumn would get horribly tangled up with the Scottish referendum, as Ruth Davidson has argued on this site.
Adam Afriyie has championed holding the poll at that time. I don’t agree with him, but whether one does or not is beside the point – which is that the Wharton Bill might pass through Parliament, but the Afriyie amendment will not. There is no majority in the Commons for a pre-2017 referendum. All he will achieve if he moves it this morning is to risk delaying the Wharton Bill, and he thus runs the risk of helping to kill it off. Once the amendment is on the floor of the House it will no longer be his property. I hope he withdraws it before proceedings begin today.