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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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

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