Here is how a summer referendum on Britain’s EU membership could take place. David Cameron is forced to concede ground on benefit and immigration reforms at next week’s European Council. (Or so today’s paper’s anticipate – though there is so much smoke and mirrors in the accompanying diplomacy that it is always hard to be certain.)
However, a deal is reached at the next council meeting, which takes place from February 18th to the 19th. The Government then lays the necessary statutory instrument before Parliament on the following Monday, February 22nd. A Commons debate takes place a week later. The referendum then duly takes place during June or perhaps even July. Government sources say that such a timetable is tight but possible.
But will this happen? Here is a case for and the case against, from the Conservative leadership’s point of view.
For an EU referendum next year
David Cameron wants the poll to take place as soon as possible. So does George Osborne, who believes with the Prime Minister that the latter’s endorsement will raise the Remain vote by enough to deliver a comfortable poll victory next summer. Furthermore, the Chancellor’s team wants its man in Downing Street as soon as possible, and see a quick referendum win as a means to that end.
In addition, both Cameron and Osborne believe that the longer the referendum is delayed the worse Europe’s migrant and refugee crises will become – which, in turn, will raise the chances of the British people voting Leave in the poll. This is strenghtening their resolve to gamble on a quick win.
Though the Prime Minister still hankers after enforcing his position on the Cabinet and other Ministers, he recognises that this will be impossible without resignations. And the Chancellor in particular is gripped by the need for Party unity, since he recognises that achieving it is key to his chances of becoming the next Prime Minister. So dissenting Ministers will be allowed to go their own way and campaign for Leave at some point after a deal is reached.
Against an EU referendum next year
Though Cameron wants the referendum done and dusted, the decisive factor in pushing for a referendum will be the opinion polls. These do not give Remain certainty of winning at present, and don’t provide it during the weeks ahead. Come the beginning of February, both the Prime Minister and the Chancellor, the latter pehaps more reluctantly, conclude that holding a summer poll is a risk too far.
Besides, the intensifying migrant crisis cuts both ways for Downing Street. The longer it goes on, the more Schengen will be pulled to pieces and free movement crumble. Number Ten might well get a better deal on migration late next year, or in a few year’s time in a formal treaty revision – that elusive “emergency brake”, perhaps.
Postponing the referendum could also give Cameron time and room to ship the dissenters out of Cabinet, and replace them with Ministers more likely to tow the line. Senior Ministers consider the former to include Iain Duncan Smith and Chris Grayling (certainly) and Theresa Villiers and John Whittingdale (probably). Michael Gove could go either way, in their view. Theresa May remains the great unknown.
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But perhaps an agreement won’t be reached in February after all, even if the Prime Minister strains to reach one. Or the Lords digs in on votes for 16 years olds in the referendum. Or Downing Street and the Treasury resolve in January to push for a summer poll, only to turn back in February as the polls shift towards Leave…