The mood seems to be changing a little in the two main party leaderships since we held the Parliamentary vote last year to require a referendum on the EU. Then they were both adamant that it was a bad idea. The Conservative leadership said they would provide a referendum should any future powers be conceded to the EU, to be defined by themselves. Labour stuck to its position in government that referendums were undesirable and not needed. They after all gave away massive powers of self government at Nice, Amsterdam and Lisbon, but never thought a referendum necessary.
Now we read that both leaderships are gingerly considering offering a referendum on the EU. In Labour’s case the aim is probably to offer an In/Out referendum in the hope and expectation that they would win it to keep the UK in. Labour as a party would of course campaign for a Yes vote to staying in on current terms, as these are the terms they signed us up to. They would hope to split the Conservative party in the process, with many Conservatives campaigning to leave the EU whilst the leadership might be in two minds with some wanting to vote to stay in on current terms if it was that or out completely.
The strategy is of course risky for Labour, which is why they have not rushed to offer a referendum. There is the risk from their point of view that they could lose the referendum. The British people might vote to come out. There is the near certainty that either way, whatever the result, Labour would be on the less popular side of the argument and would simply end up reminding people just how much power they gave away whilst in office. Labour could win the referendum, but make themselves unpopular in the process. Some people might vote to stay in through gritted teeth, believing they had to, but not feel good about it.
The Conservatives also have to think very carefully about this issue. If there is serious talk of offering a referendum on Lords reform- and I am told there is – they need to understand that many people will be amazed that we can have a vote on that, following the vote on how to elect MPs, but still no vote on the big topic that really matters.
The leadership’s view on the EU is that they want to get powers back from the EU, but are currently blocked from trying by the Coalition agreement. They concede that the current relationship is not working for the UK, but they probably want to negotiate a less intrusive relationship that keeps the UK in the EU but outside the Euro core. A premature In/Out referendum makes this a difficult strategy, as the UK electorate will either say pull out or say stay in on current terms before they can renegotiate. Meanwhile many in the Conservative party would welcome an In/Out referendum and will vote to come out.
The Conservative leadership could offer a twin referendum strategy. It could offer a referendum asking the UK people if they want the government to negotiate a better deal with less intrusive Brussels controls immediately. Labour and Lib Dems would find that difficult to oppose and the UK people are likely to vote Yes in large numbers. That could then give the Coalition government the mandate to demand a new relationship from Brussels, and might be easier to achieve within the Coalition than an In/Out vote. The Conservatives could offer a referendum on whether to accept the revised terms or to leave, once the negotiations had been completed. That way the Conservative leadership could be on the popular side in the first referendum, and keep its options open on whether to stay in or leave, depending on the terms they obtained in the negotiation. That would provide maximum leverage to get a better deal.
Those who think an early In/Out referendum is the best answer for Eurosceptics need to be careful. We want to avoid a re-run of 1975, where all three main political parties, the CBI, the TUC and most other main institutions lined up to tell us the EEC would be good for our economy and essential to our trade, leading to a large majority in favour of membership.