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How we could still be given an in/out EU referendum by David Cameron

By Harry Phibbs
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As John Cleese said, playing Brian Stimpson in the film Clockwise: "It's not the despair. I can take the despair. It's the hope I can't stand." Do David Cameron's comments, opposing a referendum on our membership of the European Union, mean that Eurosceptics have now been relieved of the agonising burden of hope?

Only last month, I was greatly cheered by a column of James Forsyth's in The Spectator. He wrote that the next Conservative manfesto would commit to a referendum on continuing our EU membership. "One source intimately involved in Tory electoral strategy told me recently that a referendum in the next manifesto was ‘basically a certainty’," he said. "The only debate now was about what ‘sequencing’ the manifesto should propose: renegotiate Britain’s membership of the European Union and then hold a referendum on the result, or hold a referendum asking for permission to go to Brussels and renegotiate."

He added:

"My understanding is that, at the moment, the favoured option is to propose renegotiation, followed by a referendum on the new arrangements within 18 months. During the campaign, the Tories would argue for staying in if new terms could be agreed but leaving if the rest of Europe refused to play ball."

What has gone wrong? Was Mr Forsyth sold a pup? Did he make the whole thing up? Was the story true at the time, but no longer so?

I still cling to the hope that Mr Forsyth's story is right. Despite appearances, it does not entirely contradict what David Cameron said in Brussels.

Mr Cameron says he doesn't want an in/out referendum with the choice being "either in with all the status quo, or out." This is a restatement of his view - for instance before becoming Prime Minster in an interview with Andrew Marr in November 2009 where he said (rather giving the game away that he thought we would pull out if we had the choice):

"I don't want an 'in or out' referendum because I don't think that 'out' is in Britain's interests."

However in his comments this week, Mr Cameron did not rule out having a referendum on a renegotiated membership. Perhaps that would be preceded by a referendum to authorise seeking renegotiation - part of the sequencing that Mr Forsyth explained is under consideration.

Either way, a No vote on whatever terms were renegotiated would mean a decision had been made to withdraw our membership of the EU. It would be an in/out referendum but not one where "in" meant "all the status quo" which Mr Cameron objects to. It would be a referendum where Mr Cameron would feel confident that voting to stay in, would and should be, the outcome.

You might be pessimistic about what deal might be offered by way of renegotiation. That would not matter too much. There would be the safeguard that if the deal on offer to stay in the EU was not considered good enough by the British people they could decide that the UK should cease membership. I still hope that the Conservative manifesto will offer that promise during the next Parliament, under a Conservative Government.


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