Cameron and the Referendum Game

Tom McGuire 

copyrigh European Union 2012 Council Union

David Cameron finally gave his long-awaited speech on Britain’s relationship with the EU last Wednesday morning promising Britain an in/out referendum on its membership of the EU. This referendum would come after the next election, and only if he does not succeed in changing the relationship as he hopes to over the coming months, and indeed years. This appeared to be a bold and surprising move from a Prime Minister usually averse to making his position so clear. Beneath the surface it was vintage David Cameron; the Prime Minister distilled into his purest form, in the shape of this one speech.

The promise of a referendum was that special type of promise: the David Cameron promise, the kind that upon closer inspection is nothing of the sort. Making any firm pledge on ‘when-I-win-the-next-election’ grounds is dubious for any politician; it is particularly problematic for David Cameron. With the Lib Dems withdrawal of support for boundary changes he seems increasingly unlikely to command an outright majority after 2015, having failed to win one in 2010 when it was his to lose. We have also seen the Prime Minister twist, turn and weasel his way out of a number of apparently firm positions on a variety of issues throughout his term of office. Most recently, most glaringly and most shockingly, when he overturned his prior assertion that he would adopt the recommendations of the Leveson Inquiry if they were not ‘bonkers’. They weren’t, he didn’t, and tellingly nobody was remotely surprised. This is a man whose promises carry little weight, even by politicians’ standards.

This pledge has greater problems than the David Cameron seal of approval. It is fatuous on deeper levels. Firstly, this stunt does not mask Cameron’s lack of conviction on the subject of Europe: he is playing a game, being deliberately ambiguous about where he stands for political gain. The Tory right maintain a desperate, somewhat tragic, belief that Cameron shares their firm belief that Brussels is responsible for all of Britain’s current problems and that we would be better off alone. In reality David Cameron has no serious intention of taking Britain out of Europe, a truth that fundamentally undermines his position as he prepares to play hardball in negotiations to get back what he wants from Europe. Interestingly Tony Blair has resurfaced (oddly writing in the Mail on Sunday this weekend) to warn that the Britain’s membership of the EU must not be used as a bargaining chip in negotiations with European leaders.

Another key problem is that nobody actually knows what it is Cameron is bargaining for. It is widely acknowledged that there are some ludicrous bureaucratic aspects of the EU, and that things are going to change as the euro necessarily brings the Eurozone into greater fiscal union over the coming years. But nobody knows quite what David Cameron wants to gain from his negotiations, and whilst we do know that his success or failure will apparently dictate the need for a referendum over whether Britain leaves the EU altogether. This is crucial because until we are given a fixed indication of what constitutes success in the negotiations, the decision of whether we have a referendum on this crucial issue is essentially completely up to David Cameron deciding whether it suits him to call it a success or not. This lack of information compounds the basic lack of information about what Europe actually means for Britain by those on all sides of the argument and most of the voting public.

This referendum plan is also flawed in its timeframe. As already touched upon, making promises for after the next election is, to some extent meaningless; the level of insignificance increases the further into the future the promise stretches and as such the promise of a referendum in 2018 is almost worthless. It is a basic but important point that nobody has any idea what Europe (and indeed the euro) will mean by 2018. This date also means the issue has really been kicked into the long grass with the illusion that it has been dealt with. This means it will be debated and exploited by various political entities for the next five years, and will certainly play a crucial part in the next election, despite the fact that in reality a date of 2018 says the Tories, quite rightly, have concluded it is not a crucial issue right now. They are saying that there is no need for a referendum in the next couple of years. By setting a distant date they are simultaneously, cynically and cleverly, exploiting those who do see it as an burning issue and will look for their support in a direct and clear attempt to woo back those who might have been flirting with turning to UKIP. This is a political game lacking in political conviction, designed for short-term gains, and must be seen as such.

This game is a dangerous one. It introduces uncertainty into the economic prospects of Britain; and it locks in this uncertainty until 2018 at least. There will be years of questions about where Britain is heading. Economists tell us of the dangers of uncertainty for an economy, yet our Prime Minister puts ours at risk by suggesting we might leave the market that accounts for the vast majority of our trade. Both the Financial Times and The Economist were quick to point out that this is a significant gamble. George Osbourne endlessly tells anybody who will listen that his plans have gained Britain a reputation as a safe bet for investment (a dubious claim); it appears his boss is not so worried about protecting this precious and hard-earned reputation.

The speech has seen exactly the short-term gains David Cameron was hoping for. He was cheered into the House of Commons by his jovial band of old-school-Tory backbenchers (the very same backbenchers he is so often embarrassed by); he briefly wrong footed Ed Miliband; the UKIP threat has been neutralised to some extent (they confusingly simultaneously claimed the speech to be a victory, and attacked it); and he has got some positive results in the latest polls this weekend. One slightly less positive, but not overly troubling, outcome was the Lib Dems vocal criticism of Cameron’s stance. This is a short-term result. The long-term fallout of the referendum pledge remains to be seen, but it is often only in the fullness of time that you pay the full price of cheap politics.

Ed Miliband was thrown by the question of whether he supported a referendum at PMQs last Wednesday. Labour certainly needs a clear line on this topic and it must be much more straightforward than it was last week. They must show Cameron’s ‘promise’ for what it really is. It should be condemned as cheap, cynical politics and seen to highlight dangerous, and irresponsible behaviour of an increasingly desperate Prime Minister. Cameron must be pressed for details and specifics to reveal he has none. Labour should accept the need for a referendum in the fullness of time as a means of silencing the relentless, nauseous bleating of the Tory right for at least another thirty years. It must be made absolutely clear that this is not even close to top priority at the moment and must not be allowed to distract from more pressing issues such as the economy, with which the Prime Minister is playing a dangerous game, and the Chancellor has no more idea what to do than he had when he started the job. This speech has highlighted how vacuous Cameron’s politics are behind the bluster. It is Labour’s job to ensure the country sees him for what he is, and his referendum pledge for what it is.

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