Steve Richards: A referendum offer is a poisoned chalice

Cameron cannot avoid pledging a referendum given the intensity of feeling in parts of his party

Share

Never underestimate the capacity of Europe to tear apart our political parties and virtually destroy them. A referendum, or the vague offer of a referendum, is the favoured device of party leaders to avoid such self-destruction. It never works.

Here we go again. Until recently a near unity had descended on the Conservatives in relation to Europe. The Eurosceptics had won. The few pro-Europeans were silenced or had disappeared. Now, the Conservatives are split once more, this time between expedient Eurosceptics and more evangelical ones who have had enough and want to leave the EU.

The division is potentially lethal. In terms of the Coalition, Nick Clegg has already taken many blows and will suffer another humiliation if his plans to reform the Lords are scuppered. Clegg has told Cameron that he cannot go into the next election having failed to secure any of his key constitutional reforms while the Conservatives achieve all of theirs, adding that his MPs are fed up of voting through proposals that challenge all they had previously espoused. In such a gloomy context, the pro-European Clegg will not be thrilled at propping up a Conservative party preparing the ground for a referendum on withdrawal from Europe.

But the heightened danger is for the Conservative party itself. Is Cameron paving the way for an in/out referendum after the next election that will almost certainly divide his party before the poll and after it? No wonder he is so vague about what form a referendum would take. The stakes could not be higher.

The near-fatal schism in the Labour Party in the 1980s started with Europe. The SDP took embryonic form in the early 1970s when the pro-European Roy Jenkins rebelled against his party's whip and voted in favour of Britain joining the Common Market, as it was then. When Jenkins and others left Labour a few years later, Europe was a defining factor. The schism led to Labour being out of power for nearly two decades. In the 1990s, it was the Conservatives' turn to erupt over Europe. John Major's ministers got on fairly well with each other, but fell out over the Maastricht Treaty, illustrating that a split over a policy is much more poisonous than personal animosities.

The Conservatives will almost certainly go into the next election pledging a referendum on membership of the EU. I cannot see how Cameron can avoid it given the intensity of feeling in parts of his party. That means Labour will make a similar pledge. No leader could survive a campaign arguing he is not planning to "consult the people" over Europe when his main opponent is doing so, even if no one is acting out of a sudden passion for direct democracy. Referendums are offered only for reasons of party management or to avoid tough decisions during an election campaign. Almost unnoticed, Labour has indicated support for one of the Coalition's early revolutionary moves: legislation that triggers referendums on treaties that transfer any powers from the UK to the EU. George Osborne has suggested rightly that the significance of this paralysing innovation has not been recognised. This is not enough for those who seem to blame the EU for all our ills.

As a result, leaders who like to project a misleading Thatcher-like certainty in their public performances cannot do so over Europe. Instead, the much less fashionable Harold Wilson is their model. In the early 1970s, Wilson exclaimed to Barbara Castle that he was "sick of wading through shit to keep the Labour party united over Europe". He waded on, renegotiating Britain's terms of membership, or appearing to do so, and then staging a referendum in 1975.

It solved nothing. By 1983, Labour went into an election pledged to leave the EU without the need of a referendum. Labour's anti-Europeans no longer supported referendums once they had lost one. As for the issue itself, I hear no Euro-sceptic say now that a "binding" referendum was held in 1975 and we must all move on. Instead, they want another binding referendum, and if they lose it they will want another when they can win.

Cameron is in too weak a position to resist such calls. As a short- term ploy, a commitment to hold one might calm nerves, but only when he is more precise about timing and substance. He will then become even more Harold Wilson-like. I can hear his evasive words at the next election. "I cannot say how I would vote in such a referendum until we have renegotiated our terms of membership." But, unlike Wilson, Cameron won't be able to get away with a cosmetic renegotiation. Yet nor will he be able to secure substantial concessions from the EU either. Not for the first time, offering a referendum might get a leader through a difficult month or two, but will become an instrument of torture against him and his party before very long.

We will all be victims, too, as this contorted, over-the-top, energy-sapping, party-splitting furore is a foolish and irrelevant diversion from the urgent task of moving Britain and the eurozone away from the cliff's edge.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Accountant - London - £48,000 - 12 month FTC

£40000 - £48000 per annum + bonus + benefits: Ashdown Group: International Acc...

Ashdown Group: IT Support Engineer - Leeds

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Support Engineer - Leeds This i...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Bristol

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment C...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Birmingham

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment C...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Sorry Britain, but nobody cares about your little election – try being relevant next time

Emanuel Sidea
 

Election 2015: The big five of British politics

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power