Pledge over EU referendum creates a minefield for Britain

Thu, Jan 24, 2013, 00:00

UK ANALYSIS:David Cameron is taking a step into the unknown

British prime minister David Cameron’s long-awaited European Union speech was always going to raise more questions than it answered.

However, it is clear that the Conservative Party leader is taking a step into the unknown.

Following the 2015 general election, a government that he leads will seek to renegotiate the UK’s membership terms and put them to voters in a referendum, arguing for the UK to stay inside the 27-strong body, he pledges.

So many issues are unknowable, for now. Will he be prime minister? Would he able to agree with a coalition partner, if one is needed, that his strategy is correct? Would he be able to get concessions worth the name? Can he persuade British voters to say Yes?

Ever pithy, former Labour prime minister Tony Blair likened Cameron’s speech to Mel Brooks’ comedy Blazing Saddles, where “the sheriff holds a gun to his own head and says: ‘If you don’t do what I want I’ll blow my brains out’. “You want to watch that one of the 26 doesn’t say, ‘Just go ahead’.”

The strategy has short-term domestic benefits: the UK Independence Party has had part of its attractiveness nullified, for middle-ground voters at least, while Labour’s Ed Miliband has been made to look dithering following confusion about Labour’s position.

Raucous exchanges

During raucous Commons exchanges, Miliband declared: “Our position is no, we do not want an in-out referendum.”

Later, Labour was forced to clarify that Miliband – conscious he cannot be portrayed as the man denying the people a say – was only talking about the position now and not necessarily the one to be held in the 2015 election.

Former Labour cabinet minister John Denham told his local paper: “We do not absolutely rule it out in the future. We do not know what issues will come up. But we think to call one now will damage and destabilise the economy.”

Most immediately, Cameron has created new divisions with the Liberal Democrats, but probably manageable ones this side of 2015.

In the medium-term, Cameron hopes his move will deliver a Conservative majority in 2015. If not, he has reduced his chances of remaining on as prime minister, since a coalition pact with the Liberal Democrats will now be much more difficult to agree.

Even if he wanted to, Conservative MPs – who will then bristle at the idea of another five years in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, or anyone else – will insist that Cameron keeps his pledge as a red-line in coalition talks.

Indeed, many of them will want Cameron to put flesh on the bone, detailing in ever more precise terms the powers that he wants repatriated, while he will prefer to keep it as vague as possible, for as long as possible. “The reason that those on the Conservative backbenches are cheering is not because they want to vote Yes in an in/out referendum; it is because they want to vote No. That is the reality for the prime minister,” Miliband fairly told him.

Some, such as Conservative MP Robert Buckland, will settle for reasonable changes, but others, in the words of Labour’s Welsh first minister, Carwyn Jones, are “a narrow-minded, nationalist wing, who are driven by hatred of Europe”. Indeed, Cameron may not have been vague enough, given his “heretical proposition” that the basic EU treaty committing states to “an ever closer union” be changed.

Despite long-standing polling evidence that the British do want a referendum, there is little evidence to back up the belief that voters’ intentions can be fundamentally swayed solely by a party’s attitude on the EU.

In the longer-term, however, Cameron, if he survives, has created a minefield.

Fellow EU states are angry, despairing, or at best irritated by his actions, while his ability to deliver anything of substance remains in doubt.

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