James Forsyth

Europe Referendum back on the cards

Europe Referendum back on the cards
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Ian Davidson, the Labour MP who has been leading the charge for a referendum, has managed to get down an amendment on whether or not Britain should remain in the European Union; the Lib Dem’s failure to get the Deputy Speaker to accept their amendment on this yesterday led to them storming out of the Commons. Davidson has succeeded where Nick Clegg failed by proposing a two question referendum which would ask:

“Should the United Kingdom retain its membership of the European Union?”

“If it remains a member of the European Union, should the United Kingdom approve the Lisbon Treaty?” The amendment will appear on the Order Paper tomorrow and will come to a vote next Wednesday. (Update: The Lib Dems have been on the phone to point out that it is not certain that their will be a vote on Wednesday and therefore Davidson hasn't achieved more than Clegg. But it still appears that the Davidson amendment has a good chance of coming to a vote) 

This amendment has a real chance of passing if the Lib Dems and the Conservatives support it considering how many Labour rebels there are. Nick Clegg wrote earlier this week that it is time for the “debate politicians have been too cowardly to hold for 30 years - time for a referendum on the big question…This generation deserves its chance to say where we stand on Europe - in or out.” Surely a secondary question on Lisbon is a small price to pay for such a vote?

Yet, if Clegg assents to this amendment he would expose just how deeply his party is split on the Lisbon treaty and he might face a rebellion from the Europhile party grandees in the Lords who pushed Ming Campbell into going back on the Lib Dem’s manifesto commitment to a referendum.

Tory support for a two-question referendum can not be taken for granted. Some close to the leadership worry that supporting an in or out referendum could both re-open old Tory wounds on Europe—7 Tory MPs are supporters of The Better Off Out campaign and a referendum would likely see several more come out of the closet, there is also the Maggie factor to consider—and allow Labour to portray them as extremists bent on withdrawal. But conspiring to deny the public a vote on the Lisbon treaty would spur the mother of all grassroots revolts and be the wrong thing to do.

David Cameron and William Hague should take this opportunity to set out their position on Europe, for membership but against Lisbon. This is a sensible, reasoned view that polls suggest most of the public share. The Tories must stop being scared of their own shadows on Europe. If they need their courage boosting, they should think of what a blow it would be to Gordon Brown’s authority for him to lose a referendum on Lisbon.

Written byJames Forsyth

James Forsyth is Political Editor of the Spectator. He is also a columnist in The Sun.

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