By Harry Phibbs
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David Cameron's interview this morning on the Radio 4 Today programme tended to confirm that was planning an in/out EU referendum after a renegotiation. Mr Cameron made the point that refusing to allow a referendum would not mean that the debate would go away.
It would have been a more interesting interview if John Humphrys had asked some of the questions raised by Marc Glendening on this site. As it is we are still left guessing as to what terms and conditions apply.
Let us suppose that the Prime Minister does come up with a clear, unequivocal guarantee to an in/out referendum.What impact will that have on the next election campaign?
It is not the first time the issue has cropped up, of course.
In the 1997 General Election the Referendum Party won over 800,000 votes, just over 2.5% of the vote. (There was also an inconsequential outfit called the United Kingdom Independence Party who 100,000 votes and 0.3% of the vote.)
The Referendum Party suffered as both the Conservative and Labour manifestos pledged to hold a referendum before joining the single currency.
Also the issue that Sir James Goldsmith proposed putting to a referendum wasn't entirely clear. He said:
From opinion polls, it would seem that the people of this country in varying proportions, hold four principal views about Europe.
They are: that we should become an integral part of a federal Europe; or be part of a family of sovereign European nations which would cooperate when we can do things better together than separately; or that we should return to being a member of EFTA, the European Free Trade Association which was our original concept; or finally that we should just get out.
In our view; the referendum should be multi-optional. It should accommodate the existing diversity of views.
His own view was against withdrawal. Sir James would have plumped for the "part of a family of sovereign European nations." The trouble is that might not be on offer. The referendum David Cameron seems to be moving towards, albeit in an exasperating crab-like manner, is that he would check first to see whether this is on offer, and then he would allow an in/out referendum.
Yesterday we had a message from Ed Miliband that the Labour Party would not match this offer. But it didn't mean very much, as it only applied "for now."
Mr Miliband said:
"I’m very clear about this, the question for now is should we have a referendum, should we commit to a referendum, should we promise one and I’m saying very clearly to you, ‘No’ is the answer. I’ll set out
at the election what our position is. I’m not going to speculate about years hence, but I’m giving a very clear view, I think it’s the wrong thing to do."
My hunch is that after all this tiresome Kremlinology is resolved we will find at the next election the Conservatives will offer the in/out referendum, while Labour won't.
Will that have much impact? The ComRes poll for the Sunday People yesterday asked UKIP supporters if they would "probably not" vote for UKIP if David Cameron offered such a referendum. 37% agreed, 35% disagreed and 28% didn't know.
Although ComRes didn't ask them, the issue could well have an impact on other voters as well. Among Labour voters, for example, 58% think there should be a referendum, only 25% of Labour supporters are in line with their leader in saying there should not be.
Those backing a referendum certainly have more work to do. For instance, in persuading businessmen to make the case – which Lord Vinson has done for City AM. Luke Johnson and Jon Moulton have also spoken out.
This is an issue upon which voters feel strongly, enough to switch party. If the Conservatives have a clear and strong message on it by the next election campaign it could yet prove critical to the result.