The Observer hit the nail on the head yesterday when it noted in its leader that the current political row over a referendum is shabby. David Cameron, it says, calculates that he is in a win-win situation. If there is a referendum, he will have extracted a U-turn from Labour and could front a successful "no" campaign. If there is no referendum, he has made Labour look extraordinarily shifty.
This, in fact, is something that had not escaped our attention. In fact, as we remarked here and here, the balance of advantage is on the Tories winning the argument but failing to get a referendum. That way, it escapes the political trauma of having actually to fight the treaty, with all that entails.
What piece then, David Davis, the shadow home secretary (pictured), conceding that the government will "probably" avoid having to hold a referendum on the EU constitutional treaty. That is what he told BBC News 24, adding that he not believe reports that up to 120 Labour MPs were ready to rebel on the issue.
But Davis did claim that the government would "lose the argument" to the Conservatives and other critics of the treaty. "In a way," he said, "losing the argument is worse for them. People will say 'you promised this before. This treaty is 90 per cent the same. What are you afraid of?'."
It is not possible to tell whether this was just a prediction or a reflection of the aspirations in the Tory hierarchy, but it sounds rather like the latter. It certainly does not sound like a man prepared to fight to the last, and seems to confirm yesterday's observation that Brown and his allies have been encouraged by the lack of an all-out assault on the issue from the Conservatives.
What is particularly striking, however, is this equivocal approach, just at the time when the Europhile Observer was coming out in support of the idea of a referendum, heading its leader, "This cowardly refusal to make the political case for Europe".
It complains of "mealy-mouthed denials and obfuscations" based on the arcane distinction between one type of treaty and another; between a promised referendum campaign they are glad they never had to fight and a hypothetical one they fear they would lose. That, says the paper, "is not only dishonest, it is cowardly and dangerous." Then arguing how the case for "Europe" could be made, it states:
In fact, many of the arguments against the EU are easily rebutted. The main charge is that it represents a massive transfer of sovereignty from democratically elected politicians to unaccountable bureaucrats in Brussels. That is a grotesque distortion. Power in the European Union is exercised not by the European Commission, but by heads of government, sitting in the European Council.That, of course, in why the European Council must be tamed and why the "colleagues" are so keen to pull it into the maw of the treaty as a fully-fledged Union institution, and why, equally, it is so necessary to have a referendum.
It is more than interesting, therefore, that the Tories have not deployed this "killer" point – it is sinister, lending credence to the charge that they are doing just enough to make a case, but no more.
This makes an odd contrast with the activity of the media. Alongside the Observer yesterday, the Sunday Times was also weighing in, telling Brown he should pay heed to calls for a referendum. Europe's mandarins, it says, "have spent decades steamrollering the wishes of the people and finding ways of sidestepping contentious issues. The prime minister has more to lose from sharing this contempt for the public than from running the risk of losing the vote."
It is strange, therefore, that Cameron feels he can be so relaxed about an issue where the media is doing its best to stoke the flames. But, having stuck recently to the domestic (i.e., EU-free) agenda, he may take encouragement from today's polls. ComRes (formerly Communicate Research) for The Independent has Labour and the Conservatives level pegging on 36 percent each, while YouGov for GMTV gives Labour a "mere" three percent lead. Labour is on 38 percent and the Tories get 35 percent.
If the recent emphasis on crime and education produces this sort of result, Cameron and his allies may feel that he does not need to push "Europe" with any intensity. David Davis's "prophesy" may become self-fulfilling.
COMMENT THREAD Tweet