OK. So it’s out in the open. Semi-official. George Osborne wants an EU referendum. Clarke, Clegg and Cable must be choking on their pasties.
The first thing to note is the reported reason why Osborne wants an EU referendum. It’s not because he believes in it (although he may). It’s because Osborne, ever the tactician, is worried about UKIP. And this is a remarkable success for UKIP. Not only did we scare the daylights out of the old parties in the 2009 euro-elections — we’ve now pressured the Tories into buying one of our key policies. For those who say that a fourth (or third) party can’t influence policy, this may be a wake-up call. Yes we can. And we just did. On the great issue of our time.
And not just the Tories. This issue has a lot of traction with voters. Just as with the promise years ago of a €uro referendum, the two big parties will now start to out-bid each other. If the Tories promise one, Labour can’t be left behind.
But before we break out the champagne, there are a few questions to answer.
Can we believe them? Or put it the other way around, can they ever convince the electorate to trust them again? We had Dave’s 2007 “Cast Iron Guarantee” of a Lisbon Referendum. And we know the excuses off by heart. “There’s no point in a referendum after it’s been ratified”. Oh yes there is. Harold Wilson, God bless him, set the precedent with his post-facto referendum in 1975. The only EU referendum we ever had was after the event, so please don’t tell us we can’t have one. “Our coalition partners won’t let us”. But if the Tories make a credible promise, they may not need coalition partners. “We can’t have a referendum in the middle of a €uro crisis”. Oh yes we can. That’s exactly the time to have it. If we were to have it later when the situation had calmed down (though it probably won’t), the urgency would have gone out of the issue.
What is the question? It seems that Osborne wants not an In/Out referendum, but an “authority to negotiate” referendum. “Do you authorise the government to renegotiate our relationship with Brussels?”. But why bother to ask the question? They can do that without a referendum — but they show little sign of doing so. The “authority to negotiate” question seems designed to leave the maximum wriggle-room. Again, Harold Wilson set the precedent. He proudly offered to renegotiate the terms set by Edward Heath a couple of years earlier. Then he came back and sought approval in the referendum for his changes — but the changes were nugatory. A couple of minor cosmetic details that meant nothing in the medium term. Pure smoke and mirrors.
How will the Tory Party campaign in the referendum? Bear in mind that this is the party which has exiled sceptics to the back-benches. Good men like Douglas Carswell, who has signed up to Better Off Out know they will never get promotion under Cameron’s leadership. It would be very curious for a governing party to propose a referendum, and then call for a NO vote. But they did so on AV, and I wouldn’t be sure they might not do it again.
So Osborne’s move is excellent news, and a triumph for UKIP. But there’s a long road ahead. It’s way too early for UKIP to declare victory and go home.