Marc Glendening is political director of the People's Pledge.
David Cameron might not exactly be in the Derren Brown class when it comes to pulling off extraordinary illusions, but he did pour some '70s magic act dry-ice over the issue of an EU referendum during the week of the Tory conference. He wanted to kick the EU referendum into the long-grass and so he gave the impression that were he to win the next general election he would re-negotiate a new relationship with Brussels. This would then be put to a popular vote at some unspecified point in the lifetime of the next parliament.
The impression the prime minister was trying to create in the minds of the 70% plus of voters who want a referendum was that we would eventually have the chance to either accept the deal he had struck, or, if we rejected it, we would then leave the EU. He tried to sound unequivocal, and therefore sincere, when he said that an EU referendum would be the "cleanest, neatest and simplest way" to decide the issue.
However, when questioned by Labour MP and People's Pledge supporter, Natasha Engel, at PM's questions (Wednesday October 16) on how Cameron would vote in a referendum on EU membership, he said:
"I don't want an in/out referendum because I'm not happy with us leaving the European Union, but I'm not happy with the status quo either. I think what the vast majority of this country wants is a new settlement with Europe and then that settlement being put to fresh consent. That's what will be going in our manifesto."
Putting to one side the disconcertingly undemocratic implication that referendums should not enable people to vote for outcomes the prime minister does not personally share, his response confirms that in the referendum he is suggesting might one day take place, we will be presented with two options: either we accept the deal that emerges from the re-negotiated deal the government can strike with Brussels, or, if we reject it, whatever the status quo will be at the time will persist. So, this will only constitute, in reality, if it ever happens, an in/in referendum.
The trouble facing David Cameron is now several fold: First, everyone who cares about the EU referendum issue no longer buys the Cameron act. Remember, in 2007 he gave "a cast iron guarantee" that he would hold a referendum on the Lisbon treaty. When challenged as to whether this promise would hold if the treaty had already been ratified, Cameron refused to confirm that he couldn't, in that context, give the British people a retrospective referendum, which any straight-talking politician would have done.
Second, he has just come to an agreement with Alex Salmond for a straight in/out referendum on Scotland's relationship with Westminster. The Scottish vote will not only result in increasing numbers of people asking why the whole of the UK cannot have a similarly existential poll regarding where ultimate political over their lives resides, but it will also inevitably result in speculation north of the border that there might be a need for a second, EU referendum. This is because if there is a vote for independence, Scotland will have to apply for membership and sign up for the euro, as the European commission has recently confirmed.
Third, there is the outside possibility that Labour, under the astute policy guidance of Jon Cruddas, might decide to promise us a real in/out referendum. This would cause the Tory leadership the kind of acute problem Harold Wilson's Common Market referendum gambit posed for Edward Heath in the two 1974 elections.
Fourth, and most importantly, events will probably overtake David Cameron and the re-negotiationist faction. Within the next three years, two new EU treaties establishing banking, fiscal and political union might well have been ratified. These will have major implications for Britain, Denmark, Sweden and the other countries outside the single currency. The eurozone members will be able to caucus and vote as a block and so impose a whole range of measures on the non-euro governments. Ultimately, it will be up to the European Court of Justice to interpret whatever treaty will emerge and what the supposed opt-outs David Cameron has negotiated actually mean. Once full fiscal union has been achieved, the idea that it would be possible to be half-in and half-out a full, unitary EU system of government will quickly evaporate.
Last, very few outside the ranks of Cameron loyalism, really believe that a thorough re-negotiation with Brussels is now a serious possibility. In any case, putting aside the fact that the consent of all 26 other member states would be necessary for a new settlement with Brussels, this fantasy rests upon the assumption of a Tory majority at the next general election. Not something that can be taken for granted.
By being as disingenuous as he has been, the prime minister's various statements on the referendum question have served only to encourage a widespread deconstruction of his magic act. More end of the Westminster pier than Penn and Teller in Las Vegas.