8 Oct 2012

‘No referendum’ headlines will anger Cameron

There are any number of versions of what Tory policy is on a referendum on Europe in the papers today. The ones that will most angst the leader are versions like the Telegraph saying on page 8 that David Cameron is ruling out a referendum.

He isn’t. The most likely scenario remains that the Tories will have a commitment in the next manifesto to renegotiate terms with Europe and then put those re-negotiations to the voters – “most likely,” a very senior government source says, “in a referendum.”

But David Cameron‘s not sure now is the right time to announce the policy – not least because hardliners will try to push their own versions of what the renegotiation should look like. Imagine what powers John Baron MP, say, wants and expects back as a minimum requirement for staying in and then ask yourself what David Cameron’s bottom line would be. Mr Cameron wouldn’t want the fairly meaningless Harold Wilson renegotiation but he wouldn’t want something as drastic as John Baron.

A lot of Tories could unite around the David Cameron line but they’re not hearing it loud and clear from the top. That’s because in the desire to stop a full-blown Euro row now the party leadership has adopted a strict mantra that must be followed at all times by front benchers and which is, to put it kindly, a little opaque. David Cameron was using it yesterday, talking about the need to seek the non-specific¬† “consent” of the British people and it’s won him some unhelpful headlines in the papers his supporters read today.

The Boris factor

One person not convinced by the mantra or the policy that underlies it is Boris Johnson. He arrives here in Birmingham this afternoon to stamp all over the flower beds and one of the reasons so many of the faithful adore him is that he wants a referendum pronto. He thinks now is the moment of maximum pressure the UK could bring to bear on the Eurozone countries. “You want to merge and change treaties to tighter union? Then you’ll have to give us all sorts of powers back in return,” runs his argument.

But the government’s position is that a tighter union between the eurozone countries is the least worst option available and could avert economic meltdown across Europe. The government can’t be seen to be trying to hold the eurozone project hostage, their argument runs. So what, the “ultras” ask, is the government’s sway come 2015 – 20 in demanding powers back then? If you commit to supporting the eurozone project – albeit from the sidelines – you lose some of your negotiating power. The “ultras” like Boris Johnson think you should ditch the eurozone cheerleader role now and push for repatriation of powers and a relationship closer to Norway than Belgium.

You see some of the problems. Chequers and the play-time with the Cameron and Johnson children seems to have brokered no peace on Europe. Boris Johnson could ignite the Europe issue here if he chose to – as he did at the highly sensitive 2009 conference. David Cameron could yet have to wheel his referendum policy out of the garage earlier than he might like.

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