Conservative majority would be a nightmare scenario for Ireland
‘Nearly all UK election results more negative than positive from Irish viewpoint’
‘If David Cameron wins more than 300 seats, but still falls short of the 323 House of Commons majority that exists without Sinn Féin taking up its seats, he could end up depending upon the Democratic Unionist Party.’ Photograph: Peter Nicholls/ WPA Pool /Getty Images
It had been implied up to now, but the Liberal Democrats’ Nick Clegg finally made it clear yesterday that the Conservatives’ demand for a European Union membership referendum would not block a new coalition deal.
Given repeated opportunities, Clegg refused to add a referendum veto to the red lines he has laid down in the last few days. “We choose the red lines that we think are most important for our future,” he said.
The near-final polls of polls ahead of the UK elections are being studied carefully in foreign ministries, chancellories and prime ministers’ offices across the European Union.
However, the outcome – one that may take days, if not weeks to emerge – will be studied most carefully of all in Iveagh House on St Stephen’s Green and in Government Buildings.
Nearing the end of a marathon, the figures suggest – and the word must be used carefully – that the Conservatives and Labour will end up close together, with 277 to 275 MPs, according to one tally, or 282 to 271, according to another.
The key for what happens afterwards to the demands that an EU referendum is held will be the numbers commanded by the Scottish National Party in Scotland and the Liberal Democrats across Britain.
The Conservatives’ David Cameron insists he will not lead a government if he cannot deliver an EU referendum – by 2017, according to his proposed timetable, though others in his ranks want it earlier.
Even though he opposes departure from the EU, Clegg knows the first requirement for a political party is relevance, which is something he has struggled to find during the now closing election battle.
A referendum would bring the Liberal Democrats – the UK’s most pro-EU party – centre-stage: in deciding its wording; in the negotiations for a new UK deal; and, then, in the campaign to keep the UK inside the club.
However, the question is whether the Liberal Democrats will be relevant. They still believe they will hold more than 30 seats, but a series of polls now suggests that they face a deeper cut, falling from 57 seats to 17.
Clegg survivalPrivately, more than a few senior Irish figures will anxiously check their telephones or TVs in the early hours of Friday to see if Clegg himself has survived in Sheffield Hallam.
A Conservative majority is a nightmare scenario for Ireland, but, in reality, nearly every option that could emerge from Thursday’s voting offers more negatives than positives from the Irish viewpoint.
Cameron could win EU welfare changes. These should not require treaty change. They would probably even be welcomed in Dublin. However, major concessions to Cameron on more fundamental issues are unlikely. If he does get them, Ireland faces an unwanted EU referendum. If he tries and fails to get them, the UK could vote to quit.
If Cameron wins more than 300 seats, but still falls short of the 323 House of Commons majority that exists without Sinn Féin taking up its seats, he could end up depending upon the Democratic Unionist Party.
The DUP, too, wants a referendum, but an influential place for it in Westminster will inevitably create Anglo-Irish tensions, if Cameron must always look over his shoulder towards Peter Robinson.
A Labour majority would solve the referendum question for now. Miliband has rejected pressure from within his own ranks to match Cameron’s pledge, and he would have no reason to resile from that if he wins office cleanly.
However, he is unlikely to do so, if the forecasts stand up to post-election scrutiny. Despite the public declarations, Labour has considered its possible options carefully.
If the Scottish National Party does manage a near clean sweep and Miliband does win 275 or so seats, then he can form a minority government that will have the numbers if it is backed by the nationalists.
Miliband does not want such dependency. If Scottish tactical voting reduces the SNP’s haul, then Miliband could try to bring the surviving Liberal Democrats’ rump on board, thus reducing, but not eliminating, the SNP’s hold over him.
The SNP does not want an EU membership referendum. Indeed, it has argued that Cameron must heed the separate views of the constituent parts of the United Kingdom, with each enjoying a veto.
However, a minority Miliband administration will have problems outside of the Commons, since the mostly right-wing Fleet Street press is readying to declare his occupancy of Number 10 as illegitimate.
Offering a taste of what is to come, the Daily Telegraph ran a front-page headline yesterday warning of “Ed Miliband’s plot to become prime minister even if he does not win election”.
EuroscepticMiliband believes a referendum would consume his first two years in power, if not more, where he would face a rabidly Eurosceptic Conservative Party, plus their feverish friends in parts of the press. In such circumstances, demands for a referendum would not go away.
Having the Conservatives dependent on the UK Independence Party would be the worst outcome for the Irish Government, which desperately wants the UK to remain in the EU.
However, a formal Ukip-Conservative alliance is unlikely. Immigration has featured prominently during the campaign, even if EU membership has not. Ukip’s opponents insist the insurgents will not make a major breakthrough this time, but such forecasts can be questioned.
Time will tell. The National Front’s progress in France serves as a warning against premature declarations that the Ukip tide has ebbed. Election 2015 shows public mistrust in politics has escalated.
The Commons results will lay down the UK’s near-term future. However, Ukip is set to win lots of council seats in the north of England, offering a stronger base for 2020. The battle over the UK’s place in the European Union is not going away.
Mark Hennessy is London Editor