Marc Glendening, campaign director of the Democracy Movement, looks at the politics behind how the Conservative Party approaches the issue of an EU referendum.
David Cameron has confirmed what many always suspected, namely, that
the Tories will abandon the pledge to hold a referendum on the Lisbon
Treaty in the advent of it being ratified before he comes into office.
This is motivated by the desire to generally close off Europe as a
topic of debate in the run-up to the next general election as part of
the modernising agenda, and to prevent Labour claiming the Tories’ real
agenda is to get Britain out of the EU. There are three key problems
with the stance Cameron has adopted.
Firstly, while the party leadership can decide to focus on those other
issues which it feels voters are more concerned about, it cannot stop
the party’s European position being put under the microscope in the
run-up to the European Parliamentary elections next year by its
political opponents and the media. The strategy which appears to have
worked (just) regarding tax will not wash regarding the EU. Refusing to
say anything meaningful and precise will soon simply not be an option.
If the Conservatives go into the elections having abandoned the
referendum pledge, UKIP and others will be able to say, quite rightly,
that the Tories only differ from New Labour and the Lib Dems in terms
of rhetoric. In practice, they will argue, voting Tory will signify
supporting the new EU status quo. The only way to signify a protest at
the undemocratic way in which the EU is moving towards full statehood
will be to vote UKIP. Given the party’s need to maintain its electoral
momentum and not suffer a disappointing result this will be a risky
strategy at the one set of elections at which many voters do make
Brussels the basis on which they cast their ballots.
In fact, the referendum promise will be the one EU related policy at the European Parliamentary elections that it will be relatively safe for the Tories to talk about. It doesn’t even involve the party having to go all swivel-eyed circa the 2001 general election. All David Cameron has to say is that ultimately the electorate as a whole should be free to decide one way or the other if they want more powers centralised in Brussels. What could be more reasonable than that? Given that the vast majority of Labour and Lib Dem supporters also want a referendum, the party will be missing a huge potential opportunity to put Brown and Clegg seriously on the backfoot and remind voters close to the general election about the way in which those two party leaders reneged on manifesto promises.
Secondly, and closely related, the new official line will not be adhered to by all Tory EP candidates, as well as numerous MPs and other party activists. It will not take long for stories of Tory Euro splits to re-emerge and become one of the main talking points of the campaign and after.
Thirdly, given that the party already adheres to the ambitious line that it wants to re-negotiate aspects of the current pre-Lisbon treaty in relation to social and economic issues, what would be the precise added nature of the risk in holding a Lisbon referendum? If the voters supported the position of the new Cameron government in rejecting the treaty, then its bargaining position would be greatly enhanced. It would then have a mandate. Better than attempting to get major powers decentralised back from Brussels without the specific, focused endorsement of the electorate. But all this presupposes, of course, that Cameron is actually serious about wanting to use office to bring about a new settlement between Britain and the EU. If this is not really his intention, then the abandonment of the referendum pledge makes more longer-term sense, post EP elections.
Presupposing though that Cameron means what he says on re-negotiation, a fear the party leadership might be harbouring is that the promise of a retrospective referendum would open it to the charge that it is seeking a fight with Brussels, and would serve as a pretext for full withdrawal. The easiest way to deal with this attack, would be to promise to hold a two-question poll in which the voters would be asked if they wanted stay in or leave the EU. The Cameron government would be able to give itself total political cover by making it clear it wanted a ‘no’ vote on Lisbon, but supported a ‘yes’ on membership.
Unless the Irish people reject Lisbon, David Cameron is going to have to come up with something better than "I will not let the issue rest" whilst simultaneously extracting himself from his September 26th 2007 promise: "Today, I will give this cast-iron guarantee: if I become PM a Conservative government will hold a referendum on any EU treaty that emerges from these negotiations".