Sunday, October 24, 2004

Referendum date for Britain?

According to the Sunday Telegraph and repeated by the two rivals Reuters and Bloomberg, as well as the indispensable Xinhuanet, Tony Blair has decided to hold the UK referendum on the EU Constitution, which will be signed by the leaders of the member states next week in Rome, in mid-March 2006.

This puts Britain among the latest of all the countries to hold the plebiscite but, to be fair, it is the earliest possible date. In the next two years Blair has to juggle a general election, a referendum and the six-month presidency of the EU, the one immovable object among the three.

With the presidency from July 1 and December 31 2005, six months are effectively taken out of the calculation both for the election and the referendum. Were Mr Blair to call the referendum first, say, in the spring of 2005, there would be a serious danger that it would become one on his premiership. Untroubled by the need to elect an alternative, an already sceptical populace would probably vote a resounding no, thus forcing Blair to shoulder the presidency in somewhat adverse circumstances.

It is, therefore, reasonable for him to get the election out of the way first. As things stand, he is likely to win it, though by how much and whether things will stand the same way in May 2005, the almost certain date of it, are all matters that remain necessarily unclear.

From Mr Blair’s point of view a referendum immediately after a successful election might seem ideal. Actually, that could go either way. Voting in Labour again may simply mean that the Conservative Party does not appeal as a possible government-forming one. A referendum immediately afterwards would give the historically bloody-minded British electorate a chance to kick both parties.

No sane prime minister would agree to a gruelling campaign in the middle of what is likely to be a somewhat tense presidency. That leaves 2006 and the sooner the better. Mid-March, therefore, sounds good. Of course, much will depend on other referendum results that will start trickling in during 2005 and on what happens during the presidency.

Then there is the other problem: what to ask. Blair has, at various times, committed his government to referendums on the constitution and the euro, if Gordon Brown finally gives the thumbs up. It seems that some members of the Cabinet, including Alan Milburn, the chief election strategist, as well as the new Commissioner Peter Mandelson, want to make the constitution referendum a double one and to ask the electorate at the same time whether they would be in favour of Britain entering the single currency “if it is shown to be in the national interest”? Presumably, the hope is that the electorate, having been persuaded of the general goodness of the constitution and the European project in general, will then “sensibly” say: well, if they can prove that it is in the national interest then I am for it. And, having got the coveted yes vote on both questions, pressure can be put on Brown, still presumably Chancellor and still presumably warring with the Prime Minister, to show that it is, indeed, in the national interest.

As plans go, it is not a bad one. There are too many imponderables to make it a good one, though. There is the general election result for one; then there is the inevitable further dissatisfaction with the Labour government, voted in (if it is voted in) for the third time only because the opposition is in disarray; the presidency might not be very successful and referendums in other countries might go the other way. The European Union will produce more unpopular legislation and throw its way about in its own inimitably cackhanded fashion. Parliament might refuse to have a single referendum Bill on both questions and the Electoral Commission will, almost certainly, object. And, most of all, Gordon Brown might not oblige.

There is one more possibility that will completely destroy the plan: despite the somewhat slow and unfocussed no campaign, despite the unseemly wrangles in UKIP, despite the Conservative Party’s reluctance to face the real issues connected with the EU, the electorate will deliver a resounding no to one or both questions in the referendum.

Meanwhile, we shall be living in interesting times.

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