There are four possible referenda on offer at the moment and in discussion in Westminster.
1. There is Mr Cameron’s proposal,a referendum in 2017 on the question
Do you wish to accept the new relationship with the EU we have negotiated, or leave the EU?,
to be legislated for now.
2. There is the UKIP favoured In/Out referendum as soon as possible.
3.There is the Mandate referendum now, on the question
Do you want the Uk government to negotiate a new relationship with the EU based on trade and political co-operation?,
to be followed by an In/Out on the new terms
4.There could be a hybrid, offering voters a choice between In/Out and renegotiate.
The advantage of the hybrid is it could give a mandate for renegotiation if that is the most popular, or could lead to early exit if there is a strong majority already for that course of action. The problems with the hybrid include the likelihood that no one course of action gets an overall majority, undermining its authority, and the lack of much support for it in Parliament. I cannot see this being a serious runner.
The advantage of Mr Cameron’s referendum is that it is the only one so far backed by the leader of a major party with MPs in the present Commons to vote for it. The disadvantages to non believers include that it depends on a Conservative victory at the General Election and it is later than people want. I do not think it is sufficient.I do think a Conservative government led by Mr Cameron would hold it as promised. Conservative MPs elected on a manifesto pledge to do so would insist on it, and I think he would wish to keep his word.
The immediate In/Out referendum has two major disadvantages. The first is it has the fewest votes in the current Commons, and it is difficult to see how that can change, as the main party leaders are all against it. The second is were we to hold one early next year the CBI, TUC, Labour party, Lib Dem party and many business groups, lobbyists and quangoes would line up for In. Most Conservatives would be for Out but some well known figures including some senior Ministers would also join the Ins. Were we to hold an In/Out referendum which led to a vote to stay in, Eurosceptics could not restart the debate for several years as the people would have spoken just as they did in 1975. One of the arguments the In crowd would use is that the UK had not even tried to get satisfaction for its problems by talking to the EU about it first. They would make much of the absence of agreed successor arrangements for a wide range of important matters. They would run endless scares about how cold it would be for the UK outside the EU’s embrace which some would believe.
That leaves the Mandate referendum which I have discussed before. Assuming 80% plus would vote for the negotiation of a new relationship with the EU it w0uld give the Prime Minister every help in seeking that new relationship most of us want. If the EU still turned us down after that as many think they would , then the public could and most likely would vote to leave. The EU would by then have had every chance to sort out what matters to them as well as to us, and would know the UK’s likely intentions.
It is good news that two Cabinet Ministers have come out in favour of voting for Out of the EU, with others also of the same opinion. Given the difficulty of governing this country from the UK now that the EU has such wide ranging powers, it would be good to hear of more Ministers who have come to realise we no longer have a self governing democracy here at home all the time we remain subservient to the EU treaties.