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Who is “crying out” for a referendum on Europe?

John Rentoul

mtwc 300x221 Who is crying out for a referendum on Europe?We saw it coming but not quite how entertaining it would be when it arrived. The re-opening of the Conservative rift over Europe, that is.

A flat Prime Minister’s Questions today. The Labour leader asked two easy questions.

1. “That Liam Fox: he’s a wrong ‘un; how many more like him have you got?” To which David Cameron stepped out of the Chamber, metaphorically, to make the meta-comment that his opponent should have asked that question the week before.

2. “Unemployment and inflation are going up: your economic policy’s not working, is it?”  To which Cameron, safe in the knowledge that the last time we had high unemployment and inflation people voted Tory in their millions, said Labour didn’t have an alternative. Not true, but it didn’t matter.

The only drama during this bit was provided by the theatrical Ed Balls, who has a good Tory-riling face, and was doing his flatlining gesture, slowly moving his flat hand at eye level horizontally from left to right and back. The noise from the Labour side was loud, too, and Cameron started to get a bit shrieky.

Then it all went quiet for the tense part: a question from the Prime Minister’s own side about Europe. Andrew Rosindell, member for Romford, said the British people were “crying out” for a referendum on the future of Europe and invoked the names of Churchill and Thatcher to accuse Cameron of betraying them by refusing to support the backbench motion.

Cameron is good at this. Drop voice. Understand and share the frustration. Want to bring powers back to Westminster from Brussels. But don’t support holding a referendum “come what may”. But he is up against it on this one, and the Tory benches were sullen and unappeased.

He will get out of it this time. The Leader of the Opposition is not ruthless enough – although I am told it is “not yet decided” – to do a John Smith and go into the same lobby as the Tory Eurosceptics on a “pro-democracy” ticket. I doubt if Labour will even abstain.

So the motion demanding a referendum has no prospect of success. It has also been stripped of any meaning by the proposal made by David Nuttall, and accepted, that the referendum that isn’t going to happen should have three options: in, out, or “renegotiate the terms of [UK] membership in order to create a new relationship based on trade and co‑operation”.

From the clarity of “in or out” we are back to the Wislonian mush of “renegotiation”.

And now the vote has been moved to Monday, to give the troublemakers less time and the Prime Minister, who will be in the country rather than out of it (never a good idea when this sort of thing is going on), more leverage.

Yet the Conservative Party has a price to pay for the madness. Any normal person, looking at the appalling vista of Japanese-style indebted stagnation or 1930s-style depression opening up on the continent, would say: whatever one’s views about the European Union, now is not the time to pull out the can at the bottom of the pyramid. I am all for referendums on constitutional questions. There isn’t a new one at the moment, though, and the prospect of a referendum on UK membership, even if it were set for after the next election, can only add to the sense of instability in the markets.

Rosindell is wrong. The voters are not “crying out” for a referendum. They are grumpy about Europe, as ever, but fearful for the economic future. As David Butler and Austin Ranney say in Referendums Around the World, 1994 (I know), it is a common myth that “the public likes referendums”. They point out that turnouts in referendums are consistently lower than in general elections – sometimes much lower.

Some Conservative MPs, however, seem determined to prove to voters that they are not normal.

It’s as if Tony Marlow, Teresa Gorman and Bill Cash still haunted the Palace of Westminster. Oh. Bill Cash still does.

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    “Word, hold on; instead of messing with our future, open up inside. World, hold on; wonder you will have to answer to the children of the sky.”
    –Bob Sinclar


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