Gordon Brown’s unwillingness to give the British people a referendum on the EU Treaty is back in the news this morning following the newly-elected Danish PM’s decision to give his people a say on their country’s relationship with the European Union.
But Iain Dale, writing his fortnightly column for The Daily Telegraph, wants more than a referendum on the EU Treaty. Iain argues that the Tory leadership should consider adopting Ming Campbell’s policy of holding a vote on whether Britain should leave the EU altogether. Iain believes that a pledge to hold an in-or-out referendum might kill UKIP in one fell swoop and could thus win twenty or so extra seats. Unfortunately it could also set off a new round of internal Tory feuding just as Labour is on the ropes. That was certainly Ming’s mischievous intention when he announced his initiative. It’s how Tony Blair attempted to misrepresent the choice when there was first talk of Britain voting on the EU Constitution.
Although Tory members are very sympathetic to a fundamental renegotiation of Britain’s relationship with Europe, Iain’s idea of a vote on being ‘in-or-out’ will, I’m sure, be rejected by David Cameron and William Hague. They do not want a row with Sir Malcolm Rifkind, Ken Clarke, John Gummer and the usual suspects. The deepest Eurosceptics will not be happy at reluctance to talk about Europe but the Tory leadership will use the steadily improving political climate to encourage all but the most diehard sceptics to behave.
The overall direction of thinking within the Conservative family is clear, however. A recent ConservativeHome survey of a sample of Tory candidates found that 94% thought too many powers had been transferred to Europe. As Ken Clarke et al retire they are being replaced by Eurosceptics. The time for a bolder approach to Britain’s relationship with Europe will be within the next few years but it is not now. The question to answer isn’t a simplistic in-or-out, either. Conservatives need to advocate a new relationship with Europe, not no relationship. Winning the argument for a looser relationship based largely on free trade (a European Economic Community) will require careful framing of the issue.