There are various options open to Mr Cameron, given his stated aim of negotiating a new relationship with the EU.
1. Say he will campaign on a platform of seeking a new and looser relationship in the 2015 General Election, to get a mandate to do so. This could be followed by a referendum on the results of the negotiation.
2. Wait until 2013-14 in case a new Treaty is proposed, and then use the new Treaty demands to insist on very different treatment for the UK, seeking powers back in return for allowing the others to go further in the direction of full union.
3. Hold a mandate referendum soon, asking the British people the question “Would you like the UK government to negotiate a new relationship with the EU based on trade and political co-operation?”. Assuming a strong Yes vote he could then start negotiations with the clear support of the British people. The voters would then be given their chance to judge the results of the renegotiation.
There are also two popular proposals for readers of this site which I will consider:
4. Table a motion for an In/Out referendum immediately
5. Repeal or amend the 1972 European Communities Act
Mr Cameron will not regard either of these as sensible options. There would be no majority for either of these measures in the current Parliament. Labour and the Lib Dems have made clear their opposition to an early In/Out referendum. A large majority of the current Parliament does not wish to pull out of the EU at all, or wishes to negotiate and then decide on membership, so there would be large vote against repeal of the 1972 Act. If there were a different Conservative Leader as some of you suggest he or she would not be able to win either of these proposed votes, even if they wished to.
The idea that we should defer everything until the 2015 election may fit the UK Parliamentary circumstances, but leaves it too late. The EU is changing rapidly now, and in the wrong direction from the UK’s point of view. Mr Cameron is being urged to recognise that Option 1 is too little too late. Although Mr Cameron did not offer a referendum on Lisbon in the his last manifesto, many have spread the lie that he did. The Lib Dems have switched their position on referndums, resulting in the Lib Dems no longer wanting an In/Out referendum now they are in government. Labour did not vote for the backbench proposal last year for an early referendum. All this adds to the distrust of promises for a future Parliament.
Waiting to see if another Treaty comes along before popping the question of the UK’s relationship will also fail to satisfy the public mood and the urgency of the issues. It invites the question why the Fiscal treaty was not used as this opportunity. Making it the policy is also likely to persuade the continnetals to get by for longer without a new major Treaty.
Which leaves us with the Mandate referendum as the best option given the political realities of the current Parliament. Two issues have been raised to question its wisdom. The first is, why bother when it is obvious the British people would say “Yes”. You should never take people’s votes for granted, and some will oppose. The main reason for doing it, however, is to show the rest of the EU that they are not just dealing with a government which should be out of office in two and a half years time (each political party wants the end of the Caolaition) but they are dealing with the British people.
Some also ask if it could pass in the current Commons and Lords. I cannot believe all the non Conservative parties in the Commons would want to vote down this measure, given its likely popularity. Nor would the Lords, so soon after their victory over Lords reform in part through using an appeal to the need for a referendum, seek to thwart the popular will on this.
In a difficult position for Mr Cameron, boxed in by the current disposition of the current Parliament, I see the Mandate referendum and the opening of negotiations with the EU as the least risky and most sensible course.