Last night an unholy alliance of Conservative MPs with very different views about the EU were defeated in a free vote by 277 to 131 on a proposed amendment to the Queen’s Speech that ‘expressed regret’ that a bill paving the way for a referendum in 2017 was not being brought forward this year. It was backed by 116 Tory MPs representing half of the party’s backbenchers. It is no coincidence that many who supported the amendment have ‘safe’ seats while those in marginals were less enthusiastic. Attention now turns to the 20 MPs who will be drawn in the ballot for private member’s bills; the hope is that one of the 4 MPs selected who voted for the amendment will adopt the draft referendum bill. Even if it became law, and private member’s bills occasionally do, you cannot pass legislation binding a future parliament. So if the Conservatives won in 2015, given the Prime Minister’s commitment to a referendum in 2017, it is unnecessary and if Labour won they currently have no commitment to a referendum anyway so it would be set aside. Either way, it looks like a fruitless exercise.
Is David Cameron going down the same road that John Major trod in the 1990s? Despite the rhetoric from supporters of yesterday’s amendment saying that it shows the strength rather than weakness of the Prime Minister, that is not how it looks outside the Westminster village. Whatever your view about the EU and the need for a referendum, the Conservatives do appear to be banging on about it when they should be focussing on the economic recovery…and it that respect the Labour Party are right, a view I’m certain the Prime Minister would agree with. The vote yesterday does give the impression of a party divided over Europe…so nothing new there for those of us who remember the debates after Maastricht…but what many Conservatives appear to have forgotten is that they lost disastrously in 1997 and the impression of division played a significant role in that defeat. When governing in a coalition, political parties are not able to do everything they would like and, given Lib-Dem opposition to a referendum in this parliament, David Cameron’s commitment to renegotiation and a referendum if (and it’s a big ‘if’) he wins the next election is probably about as far as he can go.
There is no doubt that having a referendum on Europe would be popular with the public and there is a question of ‘trust’ in politicians over the issue. In the last twenty years, the three main political parties have all given a commitment to hold one and then reneged on the deal most noticeably on the Lisbon treaty. The critical question is whether public attitudes on this issue will be sufficient to determine the outcome of the 2015 election. The key issues for voters in past elections have been the economy, the NHS and law and order with membership of the EU not a key determinant of voting intentions. None of the elections since 1975 have been what may be called ‘euro elections’ so will 2015 be any different? Well possibly. The strong showing of UKIP in the local government elections and the euro elections in 2014 in which it is likely they will also do well has pushed the referendum up the political agenda. The Conservatives will include it in their election manifesto and this may persuade many UKIP voters to vote Conservative since UKIP will not win the election while the Conservatives might. This is a problem for both Labour and the Liberal Democrats as a failure to include a commitment to hold a referendum could well lose them votes. Both could argue that there is already legislation that triggers a referendum if there is a ‘significant’ transfer of powers to Brussels (who decides when this has taken place?) and that such a commitment is therefore unnecessary but this is unlikely to assuage those for whom a referendum has become a matter of faith.
With a more promising report on the state of the British economy yesterday from the Bank of England and the continued recession in the euro-zone, it appears that the question of the referendum is not going away. At no time since the 1970s is it more likely to take place.