Cameron referendum musings return to haunt him


It always looked like the Conservative leader was going to be skewered by his past declarations on Lisbon, writes MARK HENNESSY. Now he has been.

LIFE IN opposition is always so much easier than government.

Two years ago, David Cameron gave readers of the Sun“a cast-iron guarantee” that British voters would have a referendum on Lisbon.

Back then, he told four million readers: “If I become prime minister, a Conservative government will hold a referendum on any new European Union treaty that emerges from these negotiations.”

And he went on, just a little piously, to muse why it was that so many of the British public “don’t believe a word that politicians say when they break their promises so casually”.

Those words will now come back to haunt him.

Faced with Czech president Vaclav Klaus’s signature of the Lisbon Treaty yesterday, Mr Cameron’s shadow foreign secretary, William Hague, said it is “no longer possible to have a referendum on Lisbon” and a referendum “cannot unwind or prevent that”.

Today, the Conservative leader will rule out holding a referendum because, employing a tortured diplomatic escape clause, it is now no longer a treaty, but rather EU law, because all EU states have now ratified it.

Mr Cameron’s speech on his future moves will come just hours after the long-awaited report on MPs’ expenses is published by Sir Christopher Kelly – an issue that will dominate British public attention today.

Instead of a referendum on Lisbon, Mr Cameron will pledge to put any future EU treaties to a popular vote, which is a meaningless promise given that it will be a long time before EU states embark on anything like Lisbon again.

And he will promise to renegotiate some parts of past EU treaties, insisting that London must get back control over parts of EU social and employment rules – the ones that the UK has not already excluded itself from, that is. Even here, Mr Cameron knows that his chances of success are slender, since such an agreement would require the unanimous agreement of every other EU state – but, at least, it gives him something with which to go to Brussels if he does win power.

The issue of Lisbon is a toxic one for the Conservative parliamentary party, some of whom will now press for a post-general election referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU.

Turning the screws somewhat on Mr Cameron, Tory MEP Roger Helmar said his party leader was “a man of his word”, and that he fully expected him “to keep his promise to have a referendum as well”.

In reality, all bar the most Europhobic of Tory MPs know that Mr Cameron, who will be weighed down by economic difficulties, will have little appetite for any such course of action should he win the election next year.

For now, he will be able to keep his troops in line because he is the man who may have political patronage to offer next year, but it will sour further the mood of a growing number of his MPs who believe that he ignores them.