With the election campaign underway and the opinion polls too close to call the fate of the Conservatives’ EU referendum will depend on parliamentary arithmetic. We have a look at how things stand.
When Parliament returns after the election we will have a new crop of MPs and potentially a new government of an as yet unknown complexion. The chances of the UK holding an in/out referendum will as always depend entirely on the Parliamentary arithmetic and the commitments made by the party leaders both before the election and in any subsequent coalition negotiations. Lyndon B Johnson’s first rule of politics: Its “practitioners need to be able to count.”
Given that, the announcements today by Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage and yesterday’s by the SNP’s deputy leader Stewart Hosie are all potentially significant. Here is a recap on where the parties all now stand on the referendum.
The Conservatives’ policy on an EU in/out referendum is clear – they want one. This left some initial doubt as to whether David Cameron would negotiate away the referendum in any continuity Coalition negotiations with the Liberal Democrats. It is now inconceivable that David Cameron could or would stop his own MPs voting for an EU referendum in a new Parliament. What is less clear is whether he could or would be able to force the Liberal Democrats to also sign up to the referendum if their support is needed for a Coalition.
The Liberal Democrats
The Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg told BBC Radio 4 Today’s programme this morning that, “Of course there should be a [in/out] referendum …when we need to make a decision on transfer of new powers… If you want a referendum in all circumstances, then clearly don’t vote Liberal Democrat.” This statement needs a little interpretation. Firstly the Liberal Democrats voted for the “Referendum Lock” which would provide for a referendum if (in the unlikely event) the government proposed transferring more powers to the EU – but only on the new powers, not an in/out referendum. The statement that they would make this an in/out referendum is therefore an addition to what is already legislated for. For the historians among you , the party was against a referendum on the 2009 Lisbon Treaty and at that time also voted against an in/out referendum in the House of Lords.
Given that background it is an open question as to what the party would do if the Conservatives made re-newing of the Coalition conditional on Lib Dem support for an in/out referendum. What, however, is clear is that a minority Conservative Government is unlikely to have the Lib Dem MPs on side.
The Labour Party’s position on a referendum is more straight forward. Ed Miliband restated his opposition this morning, writing that, “This is a recipe for two years of uncertainty and chaos, when inward investors will hold off, businesses will be held back from planning for the future.” That is a clear ‘No’. Like the Liberal Democrats the Labour party have supported the “Referendum Lock” on further transfers of power and have also said that this should also trigger an in/out referendum, but with honourable frankness added it was “unlikely” they would agree to a transfer of power.
The SNP Deputy Leader Stewart Hosie set out on Sunday that his party “will oppose an in/out referendum on Europe. And if there is one – we will campaign to stay in. And as Nicola [Sturgeon] has said, we will insist on a ‘Double Lock’ – so that Scotland cannot be dragged out of the EU against her will.” That looks like a firm no, although they have bigger fish they would ideally like to fry – as we pointed out here.
UKIP may also have a number of MPs and are keen to be seen to be even more in favour of a referendum than the Conservatives. UKIP leader Nigel Farage told Good Morning Britain today that: “I don’t want this to be kicked into the long grass until, say, the end of 2017… I think it should be before the end of this year. We’ve got loads of time, I mean, goodness me, we’re still in March. There’s plenty of time to do this.” Given that even with the best will in the world the legislation may take some time to pass through the Lords it is fair to say that is mostly rhetoric.
The other significant player in the Commons after the election will be Northern Ireland’s DUP. They have in the past been in favour of a referendum and had eight MPs this term.
So will there be a referendum – it’s all about the numbers
If there is a Conservative majority there will be an in/out referendum. If the Conservatives are just short, UKIP, the DUP, and a few Labour and Lib Dem rebels will ensure that the EU referendum legislation gets through the Commons.
If however the Conservatives fall a long way short and seek to rely on Lib Dem help, it is not clear whether they would get support for a referendum in return. If the agreement the Conservatives make with the Lib Dems is not an official Coalition agreement the Lib Dems will not feel compelled to support a Conservative policy, if it is an official Coalition policy they will have to vote for it. For all three parties there is the added uncertainty of how a potential defeat could alter current policy. Would a new Labour leader still oppose a referendum if it was believed to have been a contributory factor in their electoral defeat? Could the Lib Dems change direction under a new leader? And lastly, would a new Conservative opposition leader campaign for ‘Out’. We can not tell for certain.
What we can tell though is that if there is a Labour minority Government supported by the SNP or a labour majority government there is very little chance of a referendum. As Lyndon B Johnson said you will have to learn how to count.