Monday, May 30, 2005

How Britain could lose the referendum

It may or may not have percolated the brains of those still celebrating the French "victory" on the EU constitution that the leaders of all but one of the members states which have planned referendums have decided to continue with their plans. The only exception is Tony Blair who has neither confirmed nor denied that the referendum will go ahead.

As time passes, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the reaction of the "colleagues" is to continue with the ratification process and it becomes more and more likely that Blair will be forced to continue with the British referendum – that is, if he does not decide to go voluntarily.

In the latter context, there is every reason why he should wish to proceed. Not only will this be necessary to keep "on-side" with the colleagues, but there is every reason for him to believe that the French referendum has changed the situation so much that he could actually win the contest.

These issues have been rehearsed in a previous post and, used imaginatively, could prove powerful weapons in a "yes" campaign.

Firstly, there is the argument that the very fact of a French rejection itself proves that the constitution is "good for Britain", as both the prime minister and his foreign secretary have been asserting. Secondly, the fact that France – albeit temporarily – is out of the running in the ratification stakes – means that a case can be made for Britain assuming the leadership of "Europe", alongside perhaps Germany.

By employing these arguments, the referendum could be positioned as both an opportunity to "kick the French in the teeth" and to "get one over them", either or both having considerable appeal to large sections of the British population.

Alongside these issues, there is another powerful weapon at the disposal of the "yes" campaign which, perversely, exploits the unpopularity of Blair. As we have seen with France, at least an element of the “no” vote was a vote against the deadly duo of Chirac and Raffarin, and conventional wisdom suggests that a segment of the British "no" vote could similarly be an anti-Blair vote.

However, if Blair let it be known that he intends to step down from the premiership in the event of a successful "yes" vote – and only in that event – the potential anti-Blair sentiment could be converted into a "yes" vote, as a means of getting rid of him. It would also have the beneficial side-effect of tying in the Brownites into the "yes" alliance, as the most assured way of getting their leader into power.

Another factor that could assist Blair is the ineptitude of the established no campaign which, on current form, can be virtually guaranteed to do and say the wrong things.

In this, Blair has been offered another unexpected gift – the Conservative leadership contest. While the prime minister will be using the EU presidency to "make the case for Europe", the Conservatives will be navel-gazing, their key players looking for personal advantage rather than focusing on the the forthcoming referendum campaign.

Tied in with that is the "Clarke effect", the disproportionate grip the former Tory chancellor has over the Tory hierarchy, and his ability to keep "Europe" off the agenda. Already, on the World at One today, he opined that the French "no" vote should mean that Europe will not be a major issue in the leadership contest.

Even without Clarke, it is almost certain that the "moderniser" faction in the Party will readily conspire to keep the issue low key. This means that any contribution that the Conservative Party makes to the "no" campaign when the referendum goes into high gear will be late, low key and minimalist. There is a risk, therefore, that - as with the NE regional assembly referendum – the Conservatives will only make a token effort.

Putting all this together, the great "victory" of the French referendum may in fact turn out to be a "poison pill" presenting the Eurosceptics with a major challenge and the best opportunity Blair is ever likely to get to win the referendum - a referendum that we could actually lose.

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