January 21, 2015 by Paul Goldsmith
If winning the 2015 election didn’t seem enough of a poisoned chalice to be passed, given the difficulties that will ensue forming a government’ the Conservatives will have an even bigger problem. Having promised a referendum in 2017 on the EU, and campaigned on being the only party that will provide that referendum, if the Conservatives are in charge of the Government they will spend the next two years in a state of ideological flux over Europe. It’s at times like this that David a Cameron might wish he were able to hold the referendum in July, as Nigel Farage is believed to be preparing to ask for should he be in a position to form a coalition.
Cameron won’t want to do that, not least because he needs to time to perform the renegotiations allegedly needed for him to recommend we stay in the EU. So he will want those two years to see if he can get any changes, particularly in terms of the extent to which we are bound by Human Rights legislation and also on the freedom of movement of workers.
But there is another problem, which is the extent to which Cameron would demand discipline amongst his Ministers should he be recommending a certain course during the referendum. Given the depth and strength of feeling amongst Conservative politicians as a whole, Cameron, or whoever is leading the Conservative Party by the time of a 2017 referendum, should be offering a free vote for them, even Cabinet ministers.
It’s not like this is without precedent. During the last In/Out EU referendum in 1975 Prime Minister Harold Wilson abandoned collective Cabinet responsibility, allowing a completely free vote for all Labour MPs. Wilson also performed a renegotiation and recommended Britain stay IN. But Tony Benn, Michael Foot, William Ross, Peter Shore, John Silkin, Barbara Castle, and Eric Varley campaigned to leave the EU, but were allowed to stay in the cabinet. Wilson’s strategy paid off, as Britain voted to stay in.
Cameron has already said that backbench MPs would be allowed a free vote. But allowing all Ministers, including the Cabinet, a free vote would avoid resignations, and, counter-intuitive though I know this sounds, keep his party together. If people have been allowed a free vote, then they will be more likely to accept the result and move on after it has happened. Some Conservative sources are suggesting that if the process is handled wrongly, it could actually lead to the break up of the party.
Cameron has already created massive over-expectation about what he will be able to achieve in renegotiation with Brussels. Many Conservatives have said anyway that whatever concessions he achieves, they will be voting to leave the EU. He has also had to assure all backbenchers that no coalition with the Lib Dems is possible without them agreeing to hold the referendum.
But possibly the most dangerous aspect of this referendum is the extent to which it will mean that a Conservative-led government would take its eye off the ball on other issues. As one Cabinet minister observed: “The timetable we have given ourselves is madness. It would be a continual distraction from all our work on the economy and the progress we are making on it.”
However, there is no choice, the commitment to a referendum has been made, perhaps out of fright about the effect of UKIP, not that it has worked. But the mess that will happen over Europe should the Conservatives win is something to think about when you are in the ballot box in May.