Despite the speech, a referendum on EU membership seems unlikely


Cameron’s much-delayed and anticipated speech on Britain’s relationship with the rest of the European Union called for a substantial renegotiation of the terms of our membership as well as a repatriation of powers. The renegotiated settlement would then be put to a referendum with the public deciding whether to back his deal or leave the EU completely.

Many column inches have been devoted to looking at what the terms of renegotiation would be, the likelihood of success, and the internal politics of an increasingly eurosceptic Conservative Party that some claim has led to this move. But while pro and anti European camps prepare to make their cases, the simple fact is that this referendum is unlikely to happen.

At Prime Minister’s Questions this Wednesday, Ed Miliband made it very clear that Labour would not commit to holding a referendum citing the uncertainty and timing as factors ruling it out. The Liberal Democrats have now reversed their manifesto pledge to hold an in/out referendum and also back Labour’s position. The Labour Party are committed to future referenda on any transfer of power but have drawn a line in the sand on Cameron’s proposed plebiscite – indeed they have done so far more firmly than was expected.

The position of the two other main parties is essential in seeing why the referendum, or at least Cameron’s inception of it, will probably not happen. A central plank of Cameron’s plan is for the vote to be held in 2017, after the next General Election. With the failure of boundary change, the reinvigoration of Labour, and the rise of UKIP – the Conservatives face an uphill struggle to remain the largest single party in Parliament, let alone one with an overall majority.

Unless the Conservatives buck precedent and somehow secure an overall majority their best scenario would be to form another coalition with the pro-European Liberal Democrats. Dropping the referendum may be one of the compromises called for to form a government. Indeed after the divisions created between the Tories and the LibDems during the AV referendum, it might simply make for better politics to sidestep another potential coalition fall-out. Worse still if the referendum went ahead, and Cameron and Osborne were to join the Liberal Democrats in voting to remain in the EU it could cause serious internal disruption for the Conservative Party – with many on the right of the party already upset by his stance on same-sex marriage and other issues they deem at odds with the (largely eurosceptic) grassroots.

Should Labour take power with overall control, or as part of a Lib-Lab coalition, it would be highly unlikely that a referendum on EU membership would be on the cards. The likelihood of a renegotiation followed by an in/out referendum is dependent on a Conservative overall majority, something that Cameron must know is improbable.

While the public seem keen to vote on this issue it does not seem to be sufficiently popular to be a potential election ‘game changer’ – it is clear that the economy will be the central focus of the 2015 election. If Cameron can deliver on that the Tories may have a fighting chance, if he cannot then the odds are very much against the referendum happening. This is not to say that there won’t ever be a referendum on Europe, but the vision and terms Cameron has set out face an uphill struggle in the face of electoral reality.

This publication presents the personal views of the author and not those of The Constitution Society, which publishes it as a contribution to debate on this important subject.