The Irish "no" vote to the European Union's Treaty of Lisbon was yet another headache for a beleaguered Gordon Brown. Having gone through the pain barrier of upsetting the two newspapers whose support he most covets –The Sun and the Daily Mail – by signing a treaty they oppose, the Prime Minister had no wish to see it back in the headlines.
Should he pander to the Sun and Mail by pulling the plug on the treaty by putting British ratification on hold? It was tempting because the Bill approving the treaty had not won final approval in Parliament and was to clear its final hurdle on Wednesday. If Mr Brown kicked it into touch, this may have tipped the balance against the treaty in Europe as a whole.
That would have won glowing tributes in the Sun and Mail at a time when Mr Brown desperately needs them. For good measure, they are also the two newspapers who matter most to David Cameron and his increasingly influential communications chief, Andy Coulson, a former editor of The Sun's stablemate, the News of the World. "Andy exists to win over the Sun and Mail," said one shadow cabinet minister. "What they want has a bigimpact on what we do."
Despite Mr Brown's woes as he approaches an unhappy first anniversary as Prime Minister next Friday, he took the hard rather than the soft option and pressed on with the Bill. He decided that his Europe strategy (to defend Britain's national interest) required him to maintain influence in the EU club rather than provoke a bust-up. So the lesser of two evils was to go with the flow of the other members and ratify the treaty. Prime Minister's Questions on Wednesday showed he had made the right call. Mr Cameron, sensing an open goal, attacked Mr Brown for ignoring the wishes of the only country to hold a referendum. But, for the first time in weeks, Mr Brown came out on top, accusing Mr Cameron of pandering to the strong Eurosceptic lobby in his own party.
In a little-noticed Commons debate on Europe later that day, it became clear that Ireland's "no" vote could give Mr Cameron a much bigger headache than the one that faced Mr Brown. Despite the EU pressure on Ireland to hold a second referendum next year, there is no guarantee that will happen, let alone be won. So it is now possible that Mr Cameron will be Prime Minister before the treaty has been ratified, because it needs approval in all 27 member states.
Tory Eurosceptics, desperate to kill the treaty, scent blood. And they are not only the hardliners who put their hatred of Europe before their love of their party and destablised John Major's government. Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the respected former foreign secretary, told the Commons that the Tories should now commit to holding a referendum to give the British people a vote on the treaty. He admitted it would be "absurd" to promise a referendum after the treaty has been approved by all 27 EU countries. But he said any nation which had approved the treaty should have the right to "change its mind" if the blueprint had not yet been implemented by the EU as a whole. That was a "profound consequence" of the Irish "no" vote, he said. Crucially, William Hague, the shadow Foreign Secretary, nodded in agreement.
A nod may not amount to a policy statement but it was the clearest sign yet the Tories might promise a referendum on the treaty at the next election. This would make Europe a significant issue in the campaign, although when Mr Hague tried that as Tory leader in 2001 it didn't work.
The Sun and Mail would love such a pledge but most business leaders would not, because they know where our trade bread is buttered. Labour would try to turn the debate into whether Britain should be "in or out" of the EU. Whatever their doubts, people don't want to pull out. They could regard an attempt to play the Europe card as a sign that, under Mr Cameron, the Tories had not stopping singing their old loony tunes.
The Tory leader has sent mixed signals on Europe. He threw a few sweets to the sceptics, such as promising to pull out of the EU's social chapter. In practice, as Prime Minister, he would probably let sleeping dogs lie, not wanting to risk his premiership being dominated by the divisive Europe issue.
A referendum on the treaty would not only overshadow his domestic agenda. The likely "no" vote would kill the treaty, poison Britain's relations with its EU partners and put it on a slippery slope towards the EU exit door. A referendum pledge might feel like good politics in opposition but it is one Mr Cameron may come to regret in government. Whether, like Mr Brown, he resists temptation will test his prime ministerial credentials.Reuse content