Christopher Howarth is a senior Political Analyst at the think tank Open Europe. Prior to Open Europe he worked as a Conservative Foreign Affairs Adviser and senior researcher to a Shadow Europe Minister. Follow Open Europe on Twitter.
In 2007, David Cameron put his name to an article in The Sun that said “Today, I will give this cast-iron guarantee: If I become PM a Conservative government will hold a referendum…” If you read the whole article the caveat was clear, the promise was only good until the Lisbon Treaty came into effect. But that is not how people saw it, or wanted to see it. Back in 2007 David Cameron was under pressure in the polls and in the heat of the moment he or his office oversold an existing commitment. Yesterday David Cameron was asked on BBC Radio 4's World at One, if he would consider "bringing forward" an EU Referendum Bill in this Parliament, on an In/Out referendum. He replied:
“I think we need to demonstrate absolutely that we are serious about this referendum; we’ve said we’re going to hold it, we’ve said it’s going to be an in-out referendum, we’ve set a date by which it must be held. I look forward to publishing a bill, to getting support for it, to doing everything I can to show to people at the next election there will be a real choice… So anything we can do to strengthen that offer, as it were, I’m prepared to consider."
The Times and the Telegraph, have written up David Cameron’s comments as an immediate promise of a vote on Parliamentary legislation for an In/Out referendum. A plan for a vote in this Parliament has obvious political benefits. It would show David Cameron means business, can be trusted to follow through and would allow Conservative candidates at the next election to point to sitting Liberal Democrat and Labour MPs who voted against a referendum and so show the necessity of a Conservative majority. With UKIP likely to be on a high following the 2014 European elections this could be a powerful tool.
This has the hallmarks of an organised political operation on the eve of the local elections. “Conservative sources” are quoted in the Telegraph as saying that “Mr Cameron was prepared to bring forward legislation” and the Times quotes "Downing Street officials" as saying that Jo Johnson would be asked to explore the idea of “legislating in this Parliament to guarantee in law that a referendum would take place on the Prime Minister's promised timetable.” However despite this the coverage did take some other parts of the Government by surprise.
So will we see MPs voting on a Conservative Referendum Bill before the election? Perhaps, but this is not all as it seems. Firstly, David Cameron has not, strictly speaking, said anything new. In his big EU speech on 13 January David Cameron had already promised to draft a Referendum Bill:
"Legislation will be drafted before the next election. And if a Conservative Government is elected we will introduce the enabling legislation immediately and pass it by the end of that year. And we will complete this negotiation and hold this referendum within the first half of the next parliament."
There are three possibilities to explain what is going on, cock-up, conspiracy or the truth.
- It’s a cock-up: The Prime Minister, under the pressure of the local election campaign, has in the manner of the “cast-iron guarantee” made a mistake and oversold his previous offer, the press have run with it, and there is no intention of holding a vote.
- It’s a conspiracy: He deliberately intended to stir up 'positive' headlines to help in the elections with no intention of following through.
- It’s the truth: He is actually intending to hold a Parliamentary vote (or at least attempt to force one). This is a dangerous game. If there is no intention of legislating in this Parliament it could easily get out of hand.
Trust is a precious commodity in politics and if people believe (rightly or wrongly) that David Cameron has promised to legislate in this Parliament and then does not, they will not believe his promise to legislate in the next Parliament. This would be jumped on by UKIP among others. If not handled very carefully, it could also make the PM look weak.
On the basis that David Cameron is planning to legislate there are some obvious problems, which is perhaps why Jo Johnson MP is mentioned as being tasked at looking at the possibilities. The drafting of the Bill itself is not a problem, there are precedents, not least David Cameron's own Bill, which I helped draft in 2007, allowing a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty before it came into force (the actual referendum promise he did make and intended to keep).
The real problem is how to get the Bill before Parliament. Bringing the Bill forward as a Government Bill in Government time would be difficult, for as long as the Coalition is in place, due Liberal Democrat opposition. Something the Spectator Coffee house reports the Prime Minister is aware of. Could a Bill, lacking Lib Dem support, be a badged as an official ‘Government Bill’ and if not could the Chief Whip and Leader of the House still agree to clear space in the Parliamentary timetable?
Failing that the Bill could be taken up by a backbench MP, such as John Baron, in backbench time and endorsed semi-officially by the Conservatives. This could allow for a symbolic vote, and provide the political benefits, but have little chance of becoming law. This, in my view, is the most likely option but it wouldn’t technically come from David Cameron himself. Lastly, the Referendum Bill could potentially be added as an amendment if another EU Bill comes before Parliament with a suitable wide "long title". This would be dependent on skilled Parliamentary gamesmanship and could again become the subject of Coalition politics. For the moment David Cameron has the headlines it looks like he wants, but it leaves him with a dilemma. Does he push on and shake the Coalition or back-peddle and damage that most important of commodities: trust.