Jeremy Corbyn’s remarkable surge has distracted attention from what will be the biggest political event of the next 18 months: the EU referendum. But as the new political season begins, it is returning to prominence. In quick succession, two significant changes have been made to the vote, which must be held before the end of 2017 and which most expect next year.
When the Electoral Commission yesterday recommended that the question be changed from “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union?” (“Yes”/”No”) to “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?” (“Leave”/”Remain”), No.10 immediately gave way. The Commission had warned that “Whilst voters understood the question in the Bill some campaigners and members of the public feel the wording is not balanced and there was a perception of bias.”
Today, the government will table amendments which reverse its previous refusal to impose a period of “purdah” during the referendum. This would have allowed government departments to continue to publish promotional material relating to the EU throughout the voting period. But after a rebellion by 27 Tory eurosceptics (only Labour’s abstention prevented a defeat), ministers have agreed to impose neutrality (with some exemptions for essential business). No taxpayers’ money will be spent on ads or mailshots that cast the EU in a positive light. The public accounts commitee had warned that the reverse position would “cast a shadow of doubt over the propriety” of the referendum.
Both changes, then, have one thing in common: David Cameron’s desire for the result to be seen as legitimate and unquestionable. The Prime Minister is confident of winning the vote but recognises the danger that his opponents could frame this outcome as “rigged” or “stitched-up”. By acceding to their demands, he has made it far harder for them to do so. More concessions are likely to follow. Cameron has yet to agree to allow Conservative ministers to campaign against EU membership (as Harold Wilson did in 1975). Most Tory MPs, however, expect him to do so. He will be mocked and derided as “weak” for doing so. But if the PM can secure a lasting settlement, one that is regarded as legitimate and definitive, it will be more than worth it.