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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"Labour are as pro-Brexit as the Tories": what do Sinn Fein's MPs really want from Westminster?

Its seven MPs are much less sympathetic to Corbyn's party than popularly imagined, and won't ever take their seats.

Should the Conservative minority government fall, what is Jeremy Corbyn’s route to power? The counterfactual as popularly understood goes like this: Corbyn would pick up the phone to his old pal Gerry Adams and convince Sinn Fein’s seven MPs to abandon the habit of a century and take their seats.

There are countless reasons why this would never happen, most of them obvious. One is more surprising. Despite Corbyn’s longstanding links with the republican cause, the Labour party is not all that popular among a new intake, which is preoccupied with one thing above all else: Brexit.

No wonder. Sinn Fein’s long game is an all-Ireland one, and the party believe the UK’s departure from the EU will hasten reunification. In the meantime, however, its priority is a Brexit deal that gives Northern Ireland – where 56 per cent of voters backed remain – designated status within the EU.

Pioneered by the moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party as an antidote to Brexit, designated status would allow the six counties in the North to continue to enjoy the EU’s four freedoms. But the idea is anathema to unionists and the UK government, and Sinn Fein sees little evidence that the Westminster establishment will make it work – not even Labour.

“They are as pro-Brexit as the Conservatives are,” says Mid Ulster MP Francie Molloy. “We’re anti-Brexit. We want to see the right of the people in the North who voted to remain in Europe respected.”

Simmering resentment over what the party perceives to have been broken promises on Tony Blair’s part – especially over legal protection for the Irish language, a key stumbling block obstructing the resumption of power-sharing – makes the already implausible deal even less likely.

“The Irish language act was something that Blair agreed to,” says Molloy. “So when people talk about us taking our seats, they don’t realise we would be backing a Labour government that wouldn’t be living up to its commitments either, and would be just as pro-Brexit as the Conservatives are."

That criticism may well surprise a lay audience whose working assumption is that Adams and Corbyn work hand in glove. But it is perhaps the best illustration of Sinn Fein’s parliamentary priorities: its seven MPs will not in any circumstances take their seats but use their Westminster presence to lobby ministers and MPs of all stripes while running constituency offices at home (they are unsalaried, but claim expenses).

Crucially, its MPs believe abstentionism strengthens, rather than weakens their negotiating hand: by their logic other parties need not and do not fear them given the fact they do not have voting power.

They will use their leverage to agitate for special status above all else. “Special status is the biggest issue that we are lobbying for,” says Molloy. “We feel that is the best way of securing and retaining EU membership. But if we get a referendum on Irish unity and the people vote for that, then the North will automatically join the EU.”

But that wasn’t always the received wisdom. That assurance was in fact secured by Mark Durkan, the former deputy first minister and SDLP MP beaten by Sinn Fein last week, after an exchange with Brexit secretary David Davis at the leaving the EU select committee. The defeat of the three SDLP MPs – two of them by Sinn Fein – means there will be no Irish nationalist voice in the commons while Brexit is negotiated.

Surely that’s bad news for Northern Irish voters? “I don’t think it is,” says Molloy. “The fact we took two seats off the SDLP this time proves abstentionism works. It shows they didn’t deliver by attending. We have a mandate for abstentionism. The people have now rejected attendance at Westminster, and rejected Westminster itself. We’ve never been tempted to take our seats at all. It is very important we live by our mandate.”

If they did, however, they would cut the Conservatives’ and Democratic Unionist Party’s working majority from 13 to a much more precarious six. But Molloy believes any alliance will be a fundamentally weak one and that all his party need do is wait. “I think it’ll be short-lived,” he says. “Every past arrangement between the British government and unionist parties has always ended in tears.”

But if the DUP get its way – the party has signed a confidence and supply deal which delivers extra cash for Northern Ireland – then it need not. Arlene Foster has spoken of her party’s desire to secure a good deal for the entire country. Unsurprisingly, however, Sinn Fein does not buy the conciliatory rhetoric.

“They’ve never really tried to get a good deal for everybody,” says Michelle Gildernew, who won the hyper-marginal of Fermanagh and South Tyrone back from the Ulster Unionists last week. “The assembly and executive [which Sinn Fein and the DUP ran together] weren’t working for a lot of groups – whether that was the LGBT community, the Irish language community, or women...they might say they’re going to work for everybody, but we’ll judge them by their actions, not their words.”

Molloy agrees, and expresses concern that local politicians won’t be able to scrutinise new spending. “The executive needs to be up and running to implement that, and to ensure a fair distribution. If there’s new money coming into the North, we welcome that, but it has to be done through the executive.”

On current evidence, the call for local ministers to scrutinise the Conservatives’ deal with the DUP is wishful thinking – Northern Ireland has been without an executive since February, when the late Martin McGuinness resigned as deputy first minister and triggered a snap election.

The talks since have been defined by intransigence and sluggishness. James Brokenshire, the Northern Ireland secretary, has had to postpone the talks deadline on four separate occasions, and has been criticised by nationalists for his perceived closeness to the DUP.

The final deadline for the restoration of an executive is 29 June 2017. Sinn Fein has called for Brokenshire to recuse himself in favour of a neutral chair. “His hands are tied now, completely,” says Molloy. “The Conservative party were always questionable on where they stood – they’ve always been unionists. The issue now is whether they can act neutrally as a guarantor to the Good Friday Agreement.”

He believes that question is already settled. “Legally, they have to act to ensure that nothing happens to damage that agreement – but we’ve already breached it through Brexit. There was no consultation. The people of the North voted to remain and it hasn’t been recognised. It totally undermines the consent principle.”

Just how they and Brokenshire interpret that principle – the part of the Good Friday Agreement that specifies the constitutional status of the North can only change by consent of its people – will be key to whether they can achieve their ultimate goal: Irish unity.

Molloy and Gildernew say the fact that 11 of Northern Ireland’s 18 constituencies voted to remain in the EU is enough for Brokenshire to call one within the next five years (though polling consistently shows that a clear majority of the province’s electorate, including a substantial minority of nationalists, would vote to stay in the UK). They are confident they can win, though, failing that, Molloy envisages it as the first in several referenda on unification.

But beneath the optimism lies the knowledge that the British government are unlikely to heed their calls. And, willingly absent from the Westminster chamber, they say the UK government’s discussions about Brexit are illegitimate. They see their real powerbase as elsewhere: in Dublin’s Dail Eireann, where Sinn Fein is the third largest party, and the chancelleries of Europe.

“That’s where most of the negotiation will actually happen,” says Molloy. “The EU27 will make the decisions. They won’t be made in Westminster, because the British have already set out what they’re doing: they’re leaving.”

But with seven MPs already lobbying ministers and a united Ireland unlikely to happen in the immediate future, Sinn Fein itself won’t be disappearing anytime soon.

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

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