The government has said it will allow voters to petition the Cabinet Office website, and arrange for Parliamentary debate of the most popular petitions. Some of my correspondents seem to think this will allow a referendum on the EU, or permit the public to legislate for popular causes which Parliament itself has in the past been unwilling to take up. I suggest the public does not get too full of expectations.
Let us take a relatively easy case. It is quite likely that the public by a large majority think that UK contributions to the EU budget should be cut long before domestic programmes that voters value should be cut. Let us suppose a petition to this effect gained a large number of signatures. There might then be another debate on the topic of the EU budget, though the governemnt could say that it has already been debated so there is no need.
The last time this matter came up only 42 of us voted against the EU budget, on the grounds that it was too wasteful and expensive. All three main political parties advised their MPs to vote for it, and most did. There is no reason to suppose that an on line petition will get Labour or the Lib Dems to change their support for the EU budget. Even more sceptical Conservative Ministers are likely to argue that they cannot reopen the budget with their partners on the continent.
Let us take the issue of a referendum on the EU. Before the General Election and before the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty Labour was against any referendum, the Conservatives favoured one on Lisbon, and the Lib Dems said it would be better to have one on in or out of the EU. The Conservatives announced before the Election they no longer thought a referendum possible once Lisbon was ratified. After the election the Lib Dems backed away from an In/Out referendum.
If a large number of people request a referendum, it does not change the votes in the Commons. Unless one of the two main parties officially comes out in favour of a referendum on the EU issue, there will definitely not be the votes in the Commons to pass a Referendum Bill. If only Labour supported a referendum it would require a lot of rebels from the government side. If the referendum proposal is to attract official Conservative support it effectively has to be agreed with the Lib Dems as Coalition partners.
If by any unforeseen chance of Parliamentary arithmetic a Referendum Bill on In/Out was passed, all three political parties would probably campaign together to promote staying in. They might succeed in securing a Yes vote, as they did in 1975. I speak as one who voted No in 1975, because the Treaty of Rome always said it was about creating big European level government and not just about a common market. It also made clear the UK would be sent a big bill for it all, though Margaret Thatcher did renegotiate that in our favour.