Tomorrow’s debate and vote on an EU referendum in the House of Commons is a problem largely of David Cameron’s own making.
It was he who, in November 2009, made a u-turn on his cast iron guarantee that the Tories would hold a referendum on the Treaty of Lisbon. The decision was pragmatic at the time, but kept the lid on an argument that it this week spewing forth with renewed ferocity.
It was Cameron’s administration that, in August 2011, launched the 10 Downing Street e-petitions website, ushering in the change in Britain’s representative democracy that meant Nikki Sinclaire MEP’s petition would be debated by backbenchers.
The proposed reduction in seats in the House of Commons, from 650 to 600, has further strengthened the discontent of Tory backbenchers who now, more than ever, want to appeal to braying sceptic Tory members.
So what does Cameron do in response to all of this?
Having for years professed his scepticism of the EU project, the main argument he could use against a referendum – that Britain’s future is in the European Union – is not a line he can use. Having previously advocated referendums he cannot be against a plebiscite. His government having been the instigator of the petition system he cannot reject the means by which the issue was raised. He cannot even respond that issues such as this need a more measured, iterative response, having been willing to play fast and loose in the AV referendum campaign. Lastly, having in the past advocated the repatriation of powers from the EU, he cannot object to the ‘third way’ (renegotiation) in the resolution put forward.
Cameron instead has no option but to dig in his heels in Parliament, imposing the oldest Parliamentary threat – the three line whip – to keep a bickering party together. For Cameron, and Osborne and Hague with him, have pragmatically realised in government that there is no viable option in the short to medium term than to remain in the EU. The three of them understand that extracting concessions from other EU Member States at the time when the future of the Eurozone hangs in the balance would be the height of irresponsibility in Brussels.
The problem is that defending this line – essentially ‘give us some time’ and ‘we’re being responsible’ – doesn’t fit the postmodern political environment that David Cameron has himself helped create, where e-petitions need an instant response, where constitutional change is viewed in terms of party political advantage, and where the House of Commons is so weakened thanks to the expenses scandal that any effort to be seen to be in touch with popular opinion has to be grasped gleefully.
While Cameron will survive tomorrow (in no small part thanks to the vast majority of Labour MPs rejecting a referendum), the way out of this political tight spot is far from clear. A rejection of tomorrow’s resolution is not going to make this matter disappear.