Forty years ago this week, Britain voted to remain part of the European Community. That remains the only direct vote on the European question that the country has had. The promise of a say on the EU constitution was shelved when that document metamorphosed into the Lisbon Treaty, and the ‘referendum lock’ that the coalition introduced has not yet been triggered by a transfer of power to Brussels. So it’s a historic process that the government will begin on Tuesday, with the first Commons vote on its referendum bill.
Straight after the election, there was much speculation that the government would opt for an early referendum on EU membership, rather than leaving it until the 2017 deadline set in the Tory manifesto. The thinking, not entirely discouraged by Downing Street, was that David Cameron could use the momentum generated by his election victory to rapidly negotiate a deal in Europe and then put it to a vote next year, ending the uncertainty that supposedly worries multinational businesses.
That plan appears to have fallen out of favour, because rushing the renegotiation and the vote would make it harder to keep the Tory party together afterwards. Instead, there is now much Whitehall chatter about a vote in the second half of 2017 — during the British presidency of the EU, after the French presidential election, and before the German federal election. In other words, with François Hollande gone but Angela Merkel still in place.
Political romantics might have hoped that the first chance for those under 60 to vote on Britain’s membership of the European Union would have captured the nation’s imagination. For the moment there is decidedly little excitement. Perhaps this is because referendums tend to favour the status quo; the result might have been very different if this country had been asked to vote before joining the European Community.
Seasoned campaigners reckon that, as the side that seeks to change the status quo, ‘no’ would need to be to ten to 15 points ahead before the vote is called to have a good chance of winning. The latest ICM poll gives staying in an 18-point lead. Given the inaccuracy of the polls ahead of the general election, it is tempting to ignore this finding. But it tallies with assessments of the state of play on both sides of the argument.
Many leading Tories who were until recently inclined to the ‘no’ side are now backing away, for several reasons. The most high-minded one is a fear that Britain voting to leave the EU would endanger our own Union. It would give the Scottish Nationalists the excuse they crave for a second independence referendum — and in conditions that might help them win it. A more weaselly reason for backing away is that MPs are not inclined to cross Cameron now that he has the political authority of an election winner. As one of them puts it, Cameron is ‘master of all he surveys for the next few months. It’ll be a very brave person who volunteers to lead the “no” side.’
Then there is the Farage factor. The Ukip leader, to his credit, has long acknowledged that he is too polarising a figure to head a cross-party referendum campaign. But he is easily the most prominent anti-EU voice in the country. Until there’s an official campaign with a credible leader, he’s the default voice of ‘no’. And Tory MPs don’t want to associate with him too closely.
The ‘yes’ side has considerable advantages. First, it can start preparing the ground for the referendum now. Second, it is almost certain to have the weight of the government machine behind it. Since the election, ministers have taken to readily admitting that they expect the government to campaign for a ‘yes’ vote. Even those cabinet ministers who have previously suggested that they might vote to leave the EU are now said to be on board. One cabinet colleague says of Philip Hammond, ‘The Foreign Office have finally turned him. It has taken them longer than expected but he’s now Euro-Phil.’
Crucially, Cameron is also likely to win some concessions for the ‘yes’ side to flourish. Those who want to leave are apt to mock the sort of changes Cameron seeks as trivial. But I suspect an explicit exemption from ‘ever closer union’ could sway a fair few votes. Indeed, the polling suggests that if people think that Cameron has negotiated a better deal from the EU then support for staying in increases significantly.
By contrast, the putative ‘no’ campaign is having trouble getting started. Many of the potential participants, from politicians to donors, are keeping their powder dry until they see the result of the renegotiation. I understand that No. 10 has been discreetly urging Tories not to undermine the Prime Minister while he is on diplomatic manoeuvres by declaring that they want out.
Many in the ‘no’ camp hope that Boris Johnson can be persuaded to take up their cause. He has the charisma, the public presence and the facility with language to take their argument to new audiences. But many of those who know him best suspect that his heart wouldn’t be in it; that he is a more pro-EU, establishment figure than he lets on. ‘Boris is more Douglas Hurd than people realise,’ a fellow Etonian remarks.
The ‘no’ side in 2017 will have some advantages that it lacked in 1975. Then, Britain looked like the sick man of Europe and the Common Market the cure for many of the nation’s ills. Now Britain is creating more jobs overall than the rest of the EU put together. It is continental Europe that appears to be in decline and struggling to adapt to the new world order. Nor, in 1975, was deference completely dead: in an age when the public regards politicians and corporations with suspicion at best and outright hostility at worst, ‘no’ may benefit from being the anti–establishment choice.
Still, at the moment, it looks odds-on that Britain will remain in the EU. Once again, a prime minister will have called a referendum on Britain’s membership to assuage the more Eurosceptic elements in his party — only for the vote to end up settling the question in favour of staying in.