Monday, June 28, 2004

Shout it from the rooftops

In yesterday's Sunday Times, Labour MP Frank Field argues that Blair would be better off holding the EU referendum early, so he can lose it and get it out of the way well before the general election.

Letting people veto the constitution could, he maintains, be Labour's best launching pad for a third election victory. It would see Blair not in teaching mode, but in listening mode as well. And then, when the votes are counted, doing what the electorate wants.

That really is an intriguing thought and it would be interesting to learn whether anyone else sees it in the same light. I suspect not. It is questionable whether it is even feasible, mainly because of a rather odd electoral situation.

Although the general election does not have to be called until June 2006, the perceived wisdom is that going full term is always electorally risky, as the prime minister surrenders his single most potent weapon – he loses the initiative and thence the surprise factor.

However, barring a snap election this autumn – which seems extremely unlikely, not least because autumn elections tend to favour opposition parties (with people punishing the government because they don't like being dragged out on dark nights to vote) - there is only one other realistic election slot. That is next spring, 2005.

The big confounding factor is then the British EU presidency. Blair cannot hold an election during it and he would have to get an election out of the way early in order to prepare for it. A great deal of prestige is involved. It is inconceivable, therefore, that he could hold a general election – or a referendum – during the presidency.

On the other hand, when it comes to an EU referendum, that cannot be held until the Referendum Bill is through both Houses. That is spring at the earliest. So the choice is a referendum in spring 2005 and the general election in spring 2006 – or vice versa. On that basis, it looks like Blair really has only one option – holding the election first.

Here then, perversely, there is a real USP for the Conservatives. Arguably, a "no" vote in the referendum will be harder to win when Labour is in government. Conversely, with a Conservative government in power, running a referendum, a "no" vote would be almost a foregone conclusion.

Thus, we cannot agree that allowing Blair the chance of losing it early is a good option. For those who are really determined to maximise the chances of gaining a "no" vote, there can be no better option than seeking to bring a Conservative government into power, and then fighting the referendum.

What is odd is that, with such a good reason for thus voting – and one that should be highly attractive to Eurosceptics – the Conservative Party, and Michael Ancram in particular, is not shouting it from the rooftops.

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