Cameron’s last ditch gamble to buy some time on Europe

Allister Heath
ONE of my favourite political leaflets of recent years was produced by the Liberal Democrats. Accompanied by a picture of a youthful, smiling Nick Clegg, it castigates the Tories for only promising a referendum on the Lisbon treaty, rather than offering a much broader in or out poll. “It’s time to give the British people a real referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union”, a remarkably stress-free looking Clegg is quoted as saying, and the bottom of the leaflet includes a large cut-out form (the “Real Referendum Petition”) allowing the public to express their support for an in-out ballot.

Just like the Lib Dem pledge on university tuition fees, it was a giant lie. No sooner had the Lib Dems got into office that they did all in their power to block any talk of a referendum; their “liberalism” no longer extends to allowing the public a say on such vitally important matters. Ironically, the leaflet also exposes a nasty Tory

U-turn – there was no Conservative-inspired referendum either.

But the moment of truth is fast approaching. An increasingly desperate David Cameron last night offered to try and force through a Bill promising an in-out referendum by 2017, following what he hopes will be a renegotiated EU membership deal (all in the unlikely event that he remains PM by then). The proposed bill doesn’t have Lib Dem support – and in fact will infuriate the coalition party, which hasn’t been consulted – so could easily be voted down.

There are two reasons for Cameron’s move. The first is that dozens of Tory MPs had indicated their supported for an amendment to the Queen’s Speech (written by their own government) indicating their disappointment at the lack of a referendum, an exceptionally rare constitutional occurrence symptomatic of Cameron’s shocking lack of authority.

The second is the rise of Ukip. The latest ICM poll for The Guardian last night showed the Conservative party on 28 per cent (down four points since the last survey), Labour on 34 per cent (also down four points), the Liberal Democrats on 11 (for good measure, also down four, to their lowest level in any ICM poll since 1997) and Ukip on 18 per cent (plus nine points to their highest ever figure).

These are astonishingly good figures for Nigel Farage’s party and terrible ones for everybody else; Ukip is scooping up votes from formerly left-wing voters. The Lib Dems are facing oblivion; even Labour’s unambitious 35 per cent strategy (the share it thinks it needs to win a majority, thanks to the UK’s voting system) is looking out of reach for an increasingly beleaguered Ed Miliband; and Cameron is clearly losing control of the centre-right vote.

Will this latest manoeuvre buy time for Cameron? Will the Lib Dems and Labour be forced to choose between backing him and looking as if they want to deprive voters of their right to have their say? If Cameron is unable to push the Bill through, he will look exceptionally weak – but he must be calculating that this is the least bad possible outcome. Eurosceptic Tory MPs are back on side, which ought to keep him in the job a while longer. But unless this is a serious attempt at ensuring a referendum, it will disgust those voters who hate gesture politics.

There is no force in politics more powerful than self-interest, and the threat of losing its ministerial limousines is the central reason why the coalition has lasted so long (helped by the fixed term parliaments act, which states that the next election will happen in 2015).

But British politics is in a state of flux. It is hard to see how this government will last another two years.
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