The Government has rejected calls for a referendum on Europe to be held on the same day as the next general election.
Amid growing signs that Gordon Brown is considering a snap election as early as next month, some pro-Europeans joined Eurosceptics by demanding a referendum on the proposed European Union treaty. The PM is due to visit the Queen at Balmoral this weekend but an election announcement is not imminent.
Keith Vaz, a former minister for Europe, argued yesterday that a vote on Europe on the same day as an election would settle the argument over Britain's role in the EU for a generation. He said Britain needed to decide whether to be "at the heart of Europe" or to "turn our backs on Europe." He added: "What we need to be is very clear to the British people that what we are doing in Europe is good for Britain."
Mr Vaz said: "We do not need a referendum on the reform treaty. But I think there is a difference between need and desirability. Once and for all we need to put this behind us by putting it to the British people."
But Jim Murphy, the current minister for Europe, insisted that there was no need for a public vote on the treaty because the EU constitution scuppered by "no votes" in France and the Netherlands two years ago had been abandoned. "Parliament is the right place for ratification – just as it was for the Single European Act under Baroness Thatcher, the Maastricht treaty under Sir John Major, and the Nice and Amsterdam treaties under Tony Blair," he said.
Some Labour figures believe that an early election would help to quell the demands for a referendum. They say that, if Labour won a fourth term on a manifesto saying that a plebiscite was not needed, it could claim a mandate for the treaty to be decided by Parliament. Although recent opinion polls have given Labour a healthy lead, a private poll for the Conservative Party by Populus, published last night, shows Labour only one point ahead. It puts Labour on 37 per cent (down two points), the Tories on 36 per cent (up three) and the Liberal Democrats on 16 per cent (up one point).
However, Brown allies insist they can win the argument in Parliament that the treaty is not the same as the EU constitution.
They acknowledge the need to fight back against the pro-referendum campaign, which has gained ground during the summer months. But they believe that combining a referendum and election would be a risky move that might boost the Tories' prospects of winning power by raising the profile of Europe in the campaign.
Brownites also doubt Mr Vaz's claim that a public vote on the treaty could be turned into a debate about Britain's future within Europe. They believe that many people would vote on the merits of the treaty rather than Britain's EU membership, which would continue even if the treaty were rejected.Reuse content