David Cameron moves the EU referendum back - is he turning into John Major?

Downing Street has squashed talk of a second referendum under pressure from the party's Eurosceptics and Labour. Is it 1992 all over again?

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Downing Street has ruled out an early referendum on Britain's membership of the European Union under pressure from Conservative backbenchers and the Opposition. 

Although the Referendum Bill currently making its way through the Houses of Parliament guarantees a referendum by 31 December 2017, Downing Street staffers were keen to avoid holding the referendum in midterm. May 2016 was eyed as a possible date, setting up "a day of seven elections" - elections to the devolved legislatures in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, local elections in England, police and crime comissioner elections, and the Mayoral contest in London alongside the referendum. However, Newsnight reveals, that plan has been shelved, either setting up a referendum later on in 2016 or holding off until 2017. 

The move will reassure combatants on both sides. As Carwyn Jones, the Welsh First Minister, told the New Statesman in a recent interview, holding the contest in May would mean that Welsh voters would have "four ballots, with four different electoral systems", and could scupper any hope of a joint pro-European campaign: "You can't attack Plaid Cymru one day and share a platform with them the next". But it will also cheer Eurosceptics, who feared that a quick referendum would see the contest defined as Ukip against the rest, leaving them little chance of taking Britain out of Europe. "We don't have our best suit and tie on yet," fretted one Eurosceptic MP recently. 

The reality is that it is pressure from that quarter, not concern from the devolved legislatures or pressure from Labour, that has forced Cameron's hand. It all feels more reminiscent than he would like of the last time the Conservatives won a majority, in 1992. Then, as now, it briefly looked as if Labour would never govern again, before European division torn the Tory party apart. That Cameron, at the peak of his powers, has already been forced into two European U-Turns, delaying his plans to scrap the Human Rights Act, and lengthening the timetable for the referendum, suggests the same may happen to him,

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics. He also co-hosts the New Statesman podcast.

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