Cameron's referendum gun is firing blanks

The Prime Minister cannot negotiate effectively in Brussels and give his MPs what they want at the same time

David Cameron’s position on whether there should be a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union is an entirely rational one. That isn’t to say he is doing the right things at European summits or has the right policy. It is simply an observation about the tricky position he is in, having to negotiate simultaneously in Brussels with fellow heads of government and in Westminster with his own party.

The two sets of demands are incompatible. In Brussels, the Prime Minister wants to influence the evolution of European institutions as they adapt to the single currency crisis. He needs to preserve British influence without signing up to any more political or economic integration. That balancing act gets harder when his continental counterparts think the UK is determined to sabotage their efforts and is, in any case, striding towards the exit. That is precisely the message that would be transmitted by a premature commitment to a referendum regardless of what comes out of current negotiations.

Tory Eurosceptics, meanwhile, argue that the prospect of a referendum will focus the minds of the PM and the rest of the EU, making it clear that the final deal has to be a good one for Britain ...or else. That view rests on the uncertain premise that other European countries desperately want to avoid a British exit. Diplomatic patience with the UK is running thin. Besides, seasoned observers of the Tory right (at home and abroad) recognise that the end game for many MPs is exit no matter what concessions are wrung from Brussels. Why should Angela Merkel or François Hollande offer David Cameron favours on the basis that it might help him control his party and buy a renewed mandate of the UK’s EU membership when they know perfectly well that it won’t?

But Cameron can’t simply tell his party to shut up and wait and see what he has negotiated before demanding a referendum. Tory MPs don’t trust his pledges on Europe and want some indication that the plebiscite they crave will materialise. So he has to indicate that he recognises the need for a vote without actually stating that there will definitely be one. Britain’s membership of the EU really ought to be ratified by a national vote but there isn’t much point asking the question until the terms of that membership are settled and they are now, thanks to uncertainty over the single currency, in flux. That is Cameron’s position and, as I say, it is reasonable given the political constraints he is under.

The most aggressively eurosceptic section of the Tory party, however, is minded to be unreasonable. I don’t mean that in the pejorative sense of ‘irrational’. I mean their patience has run out and they don’t want excuses. They feel Cameron has been given the benefit of the doubt on Europe in the past and has been flaky on the subject. (In fact he has been extraordinarily accommodating.) His promises to deliver something – maybe - at an unspecified point in the future are worthless currency in the Conservative ranks.

There is no great diplomatic advantage in sounding off about a referendum; if anything it weakens Britain’s negotiating position. Nor does the vague promise of a referndum do very much for non-aligned voters with other things on their minds. So the only point of even talking about a vote is as a gesture to the Ukip-leaning tendency and the only gesture that will satisfy them – a clear irreversible commitment to an in/out question - is one the Prime Minister cannot make. It is, in political terms, as if Cameron has pulled out a gun to look all macho eurosceptic when everyone knows he is firing blanks.

David Cameron "can’t simply tell his party to shut up and wait and see". Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

Photo: Getty
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Jeremy Corbyn may be a Eurosceptic, but he still appeals to the values of many Remainers

He reassures Labour MPs defending majorities in heavily pro-EU areas that things will be OK.

There are two facts about Brexit that everyone seems to forget every few weeks: the first is that Jeremy Corbyn is a Eurosceptic. The second is that the first fact doesn't really matter.

The Labour leader's hostility to the European project is back in the news after he told Andrew Marr that the United Kingdom's membership of the single market was inextricably linked with its EU membership, and added for good measure that the “wholesale importation” of people from Eastern and Central Europe had been used to “destroy” the conditions of workers, particularly in the construction industry.

As George Eaton observes on Twitter, Corbyn voted against the creation of the single market in 1986 (and the Maastricht Treaty, and the Lisbon Treaty, and so on and so on). It would be a bigger shock if the Labour leader weren't advocating for a hard exit from the European Union.

Here's why it doesn't matter: most Labour MPs agree with him. There is not a large number of Labour votes in the House of Commons that would switch from opposing single market membership to supporting it if Corbyn changed his mind. (Perhaps five or so from the frontbenches and the same again on the backbenches.)

There is a way that Corbyn matters: in reassuring Labour MPs defending majorities in heavily pro-Remain areas that things will be OK. Imagine for a moment the reaction among the liberal left if, say, Yvette Cooper or Stephen Kinnock talked about the “wholesale importation” of people or claimed that single market membership and EU membership were one and the same. Labour MPs in big cities and university towns would be a lot more nervous about bleeding votes to the Greens or the Liberal Democrats were they not led by a man who for all his longstanding Euroscepticism appeals to the values of so many Remain voters.

Corbyn matters because he provides electoral insurance against a position that Labour MPs are minded to follow anyway. And that, far more than the Labour leader's view on the Lisbon Treaty, is why securing a parliamentary majority for a soft exit from the European Union is so hard. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.