Cameron's new EU referendum headache

Downing Street slaps down Iain Duncan Smith's call for a referendum on any "major treaty change".

Iain Duncan Smith, one of the cabinet's most eurosceptic members, caused some excitement at the weekend when he suggested that a referendum could be held on any "major treaty change" (such as that required for a fiscal union) even if there was no further transfer of power from Britain to the European Union.

"If there is a major treaty change, it is now legislated for that we should have a referendum," he told Sky News, adding that this was David Cameron's position. But the Work and Pensions Secretary has now been slapped down by Downing Street, which made it clear that the coalition's "referendum lock" only applies to treaties that affect British sovereignty.

The prime minister's official spokesman said:

What is being discussed at the moment is about how the members of the eurozone organise themselves and how they construct the right economic governance for the eurozone ... There are no proposals on the table for a transfer of powers from the UK to Brussels. That is not what it being talked about ... There is no lack of clarity here. The Act talks about triggering a referendum if there's a transfer of power from London to Brussels.

With reference to Cameron's previous "cast-iron pledge" to hold a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, ConservativeHome's Tim Montgomerie suggests that Downing Street's position is "technically correct" but that voters will see it as "slippery". With this in mind, it's worth noting that the PM's spokesman refused to explicitly rule out holding a referendum on a major treaty change that didn't affect Britain. As Andrew Sparrow notes, "The Act specificies the circumstances in which a referendum has to be held (a transfer of power), but it does not stop a government holding a referendum in other circumstances."

As Germany and France pursue "ever closer union", expect this debate to run and run.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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PMQs review: Theresa May shows how her confidence has grown

After her Brexit speech, the PM declared of Jeremy Corbyn: "I've got a plan - he doesn't have a clue". 

The woman derided as “Theresa Maybe” believes she has neutralised that charge. Following her Brexit speech, Theresa May cut a far more confident figure at today's PMQs. Jeremy Corbyn inevitably devoted all six of his questions to Europe but failed to land a definitive blow.

He began by denouncing May for “sidelining parliament” at the very moment the UK was supposedly reclaiming sovereignty (though he yesterday praised her for guaranteeing MPs would get a vote). “It’s not so much the Iron Lady as the irony lady,” he quipped. But May, who has sometimes faltered against Corbyn, had a ready retort. The Labour leader, she noted, had denounced the government for planning to leave the single market while simultaneously seeking “access” to it. Yet “access”, she went on, was precisely what Corbyn had demanded (seemingly having confused it with full membership). "I've got a plan - he doesn't have a clue,” she declared.

When Corbyn recalled May’s economic warnings during the referendum (“Does she now disagree with herself?”), the PM was able to reply: “I said if we voted to leave the EU the sky would not fall in and look at what has happened to our economic situation since we voted to leave the EU”.

Corbyn’s subsequent question on whether May would pay for single market access was less wounding than it might have been because she has consistently refused to rule out budget contributions (though yesterday emphasised that the days of “vast” payments were over).

When the Labour leader ended by rightly hailing the contribution immigrants made to public services (“The real pressure on public services comes from a government that slashed billions”), May took full opportunity of the chance to have the last word, launching a full-frontal attack on his leadership and a defence of hers. “There is indeed a difference - when I look at the issue of Brexit or any other issues like the NHS or social care, I consider the issue, I set out my plan and I stick to it. It's called leadership, he should try it some time.”

For May, life will soon get harder. Once Article 50 is triggered, it is the EU 27, not the UK, that will take back control (the withdrawal agreement must be approved by at least 72 per cent of member states). With MPs now guaranteed a vote on the final outcome, parliament will also reassert itself. But for now, May can reflect with satisfaction on her strengthened position.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.