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Marc Glendening: Is your Prime Minister a referendum cheat? Three questions that will reveal the truth about him...

Glendening marcMarc Glendening is Political Director of People's Pledge.

Love rats that have been caught out by their partners often then go through an elaborate, desperate act of contrition to buy more time and keep the relationship afloat. David Cameron, having been exposed late last year as not being true to his apparent promise to give us a definitive say on EU membership, is now apparently about to re-commit for the long-term to those of us who want a real referendum.

David Cameron’s big European speech later this month will be for him and those who support an EU referendum the equivalent of a final, make or break Relate session. It’s important we all understand this.

It took a wily, suspicious woman to tease the truth out of the prime minister last time round. At PMQs on October 16 2012, Labour MP and People's Pledge supporter Natascha Engel, ingeniously asked Mr Cameron which way he would vote in the in-out referendum he had recently appeared to endorse on the eve of the Tory conference. He prevaricated uneasily before confessing, finally, that the ballot he was thinking about giving us (at some unspecified point in the future) would not, after all, give the electorate the option of actually leaving the EU as he did not believe this was in Britain’s interest. It was unclear then what this hypothetical ballot would actually be about. So, just a load of sweet nothings.

And then there was that unfortunate business to do with the then Leader of the Opposition, the Lisbon treaty and his ‘cast iron guarantee’, but perhaps best not to revisit that tawdry little story again...

Who knows, perhaps David Cameron now realises that with the EU about to move towards full banking, debt and fiscal union, there can be no escaping the need to let the British people — within the lifetime of the next Parliament — decide where their political future ultimately lies. Or, perhaps this is really just another ploy to try and neutralise the issue within his own party and among the 70% plus of voters who say they want the right to be consulted about our relationship with Brussels in the long run-ups to the next European and general elections.

Here are three questions the prime minister needs to answer in order that we can decide for ourselves how genuine the promise he will soon make to us actually is:

  1. If a re-negotiation of Britain’s relationship with Brussels fails to materialise, or only produces very minimal results, does David Cameron still intend calling an in-out EU referendum, within the lifetime of the next parliament?
  2. If the Conservatives fail to win an outright majority at the next election, will David Cameron make the forming of a coalition government conditional on potential partners signing up to an in-out referendum?
  3. Will the government write into law that there will be a referendum on EU membership within the lifetime of the next parliament?

It is important that the first question be put because we need to know if Cameron’s referendum commitment is absolute or contingent on a significant number of powers being successfully repatriated to parliament from Brussels. If it is the latter, forget it. As things stand there is no legal basis whatsoever for a re-negotiation, successful or otherwise, unless the UK government evokes article 50 of the treaty. This covers the arrangements for arriving at a new relationship between a member country notifying the EU of its wish to leave and the European Council, the body on which the other political heads of state are represented. Given that Cameron says he does not support Britain leaving the EU this is clearly not an option open to him. He has already intimated that in any future direct test of public opinion, he will be campaigning to stay in. 

There is simply no procedure available to a member government that wishes to unilaterally instigate an EU Inter Governmental Conference (IGC) with the intention of trying to obtain a repatriation of powers to itself. Article 48 states that any proposal by a member state, the Commission or the European Parliament for a revision of the treaty requires majority support within the council. Even if that hurdle is crossed, the proposed amendments must then be approved by a Convention drawn from representatives of all the member states governments and their national parliaments, the European Parliament and the Commission working on the basis of consensus, rather than actual voting. Once this has concluded its deliberations, a Conference of Representatives of the member countries will decide what amendments to accept or reject.

The only other option open to David Cameron is to use the next proposed treaty, discussions around which will commence in 2014, to try and wrestle back some powers. However, given that the current Government’s position is that greater fiscal union is to be encouraged for the Eurozone countries, it seems very unlikely that the Prime Minister will play extreme hard-ball with Angela Merkel and the other EU leaders by threatening to withhold his consent from the treaty. On the Andrew Marr Show he implied he might do this, but don’t hold your breath, especially if the Coalition is still in place when negotiations start in earnest. 

The second question needs to be asked because voters who want a referendum need to know to what extent this objective is a priority for David Cameron. Anything other than a categorical assurance that giving the British people a vote on EU membership will be a condition of forming a future coalition government – as the AV ballot was for Nick Clegg – should bring into question how firm the Prime Minister’s commitment actually is.

Likewise, the last one needs to be put not just to confirm the Government’s level of commitment but because of the uncertainty concerning the result of the next general election. By enshrining the policy of a referendum in legislation David Cameron will put both Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg in an extremely difficult position. The Prime Minister should dare the other party leaders to whip their MPs to block a policy a clear majority of the electorate consistently say they support. By stipulating in the Referendum Bill that the ballot should take place by 2020, Cameron would remove in one fell swoop the potential excuse for opposing this measure that ‘now is not the right time’. 

As with the undertakings errant lovers make to those they have mislead, the devil is always in the detail. That is why these questions need to put and answered.


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