The chances of an EU referendum in the next parliament are wildly overstated

A Conservative majority remains unlikely and EU treaty change could take many years to come to fruition.

If promising referendums were a good way of winning votes then you can be sure there would be more politicians promising them. There have been two (nationwide) held in the past 40 years: one on the UK’s membership of the European Economic Community in 1975; the other on the voting system in 2011. Polls suggest they are always popular in theory, (after all, who could be against ‘giving the people a say’?) but in practice, voters generally seem happy to be left alone outside of election time (which probably explains 2011’s somewhat deflating 42% turnout).

Why do I mention this? Chiefly to challenge the notion that a growing public appetite is making an in/out EU referendum inevitable. The surging popularity of the UK Independence Party and the Conservative Party’s loud commitment to a referendum in 2017 have lent credence to the idea that an unstoppable momentum is building in favour of a referendum in the next parliament (and possibly before). It's a case that has been wildly overstated.

Polls show two-thirds of voters in favour of a referendum on EU membership, but there is little evidence the issue would induce many of them to change their votes at an election. In fact quite the reverse: just 7% of voters mention Europe when asked to list “important issues facing Britain today” with only 2% identifying it as “the most important”. It speaks volumes that UKIP, a party whose raison d’être is to pull the country out of the EU, spends most of its time these days talking about immigration rather than Brussels. The two are related of course (Nigel Farage warns of an impending tide of Romanian criminals once immigration restrictions lapse in 2014), but the 7% of voters listing Europe among their top issues is dwarfed by the 35% mentioning immigration, the 50% mentioning the economy and the 26% mentioning the NHS. Put simply, the EU question is unlikely to play a significant part in the 2015 general election. Labour and the Lib Dems have little to fear from failing to match the Conservative pledge.

As to that pledge itself, it is only certain to be fulfilled in the event the Conservatives win an outright majority. But the chances of this appear to be diminishing. Current polling projects a Labour majority of around 100 seats. This is almost certainly too generous to Labour if one assumes a modest revival in the economy and the return of some UKIP voters to the Conservatives ahead of polling day (both of which seem likely). However, for the Tories to improve on their 2010 performance they would need to buck the trend of the last eight elections, which have seen the governing party's vote share fall on each occasion. There are no immutable laws of politics, but the last election’s circumstances were very conducive to a Conservative win (13-year old government, faltering economy, deeply unpopular PM); their removal and the added threat from UKIP suggest the trend is unlikely to be broken in 2015.

If one expects a Conservative defeat at the next election then a referendum is no more likely now than it was in January 2011 when the coalition government first legislated for a  ‘referendum lock’. This is a law mandating a referendum in the event of treaty change which transfers more powers from the UK to Brussels. Both Labour and the Lib Dems have pledged to retain the lock. This is significant. Nick Clegg has stated that it is a question of “when, not if” the UK holds a referendum. In the long run, this is probably true.

Yet EU treaty change could take many years to come to fruition. French President François Hollande, who will be in power until at least 2016, is desperate to avoid it, not least because the last one, Lisbon, split his party. The Netherlands has also expressed a distinct lack of enthusiasm. Balancing the competing demands of debtor countries and creditors, once it starts, will also likely be a long, laborious process. And that process isn’t even close to beginning. Meanwhile, while the Lisbon Treaty took just six months to negotiate, it was almost entirely based on the failed EU Constitution which took three and a half years from proposal to the start of the doomed ratification process.

Beyond the significant question marks over when a referendum would actually take place, there is also the small matter of the likely result. Readers of ASR’s Politics Monthly will be familiar with our position on the current polling data, which shows a plurality of voters in favour of exit. This, in our view, simply reflects the one-sided nature of the debate that has dominated discourse over Europe in Britain for the past two decades. There has been little incentive for politicians in favour of Britain’s EU membership to argue its case from day to day – passionate arguments for maintaining the status quo aren’t the stuff great political oratory is made of – but a widely-publicised referendum would likely prompt many who have up to now kept quiet to speak up.

On one side of the debate would be UKIP, the eurosceptic press and a cabal of backbench, mostly Conservative, MPs; on the other would likely be the leaders of all three main parties, the non-eurosceptic press and, potentially the trump card, a majority of the business community. Faced with arguments from non-partisan business people that leaving the EU would cost thousands of British jobs, we believe the British public would, reluctantly perhaps, vote to stay.

David Cameron delivers his speech on the UK's relationship with the EU at Bloomberg's headquarters in London on 23 January. Photograph: Getty Images.

Richard Mylles is a political analyst at Absolute Strategy Research, an independent consultancy based in London.

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.