Downing Street’s announcement today that the EU referendum will be held using an adapted version of the “General Election franchise” – i.e. British, Irish and Commonwealth citizens, plus Gibraltar and the House of Lords, and not the non-Commonwealth EU citizens living in the UK – is good news.
For a start, it’s clearly right. This referendum is a constitutional one, on the fundamental question of how our nation is governed – it would be bizarre to allow people to vote on such matters if they are currently not allowed to vote on the shorter term but related question of who sits in the House of Commons.
It’s also consistent. This franchise is exactly that set out in the Wharton Bill that David Cameron supported during the last parliament.
Politically, it is the only sensible and feasible choice. Introduce EU citizens into the electorate for the referendum and you would instantly spark a rebellion among the more eurosceptic Conservative MPs. As Chris White demonstrated last week, a rebellion on any topic wouldn’t have to be very large to sink the Government.
This is also the latest in a series of mild rebukes for Nigel Farage. For the last few months he has toured the media “demanding” such a franchise – as though the Wharton Bill supported by the Prime Minister in the last parliament did not already set one out. A year ago he told all and sundry that Ed Miliband would inevitably offer an in/out referendum, so if UKIP risked letting Labour candidates in at the expense of Conservatives that didn’t matter - he turned out to be mistaken on that, too.
The new Referendum Bill will legislate for a plebiscite, using the franchise Farage and every other eurosceptic wanted. It is very unlikely to be on his preferred (and in my view unwise) timescale of “this summer”, but there’s a distinct possibility it might happen earlier than 2017, partially answering another of his “demands”. The question is likely to be more balanced than his proposed “Do you wish to be a free, independent sovereign democracy?”, but that isn’t something we should fear as democrats and believers in the wisdom of the British people.
All in all, this ought to be good news for him, as it is for the rest of us who have spent years campaigning for a referendum. The Government now sounds more like us than we might ever have thought possible - a spokesman quote issued last night uses the line “No Brit under the age of 58 has had their say on the UK’s membership of the European Union”, an argument familiar to any Better Off Out supporter.
This is a big test for Farage, though. If, as he’s always claimed, he just wants a democratic opportunity to leave the EU, will he now welcome this Bill and recognise that the Conservatives are doing what they promised, contrary to his many dismissals? It would be a decent gesture and a good way to show he is more interested in the future of the nation than in partisan point-scoring.
Eurosceptics need to pull together and get on with winning the referendum – now would be the time to do so.