Gordon Brown has promised a lengthy examination of the Treaty of Lisbon but no referendum. This has a double purpose. Firstly to give the appearance that Parliament is paying careful attention to the detail of the Treaty and that, in the absence of a referendum, this is the best safeguard against the UK go off and hang themselves in large numbers.
Parliament, however, is strictly limited in what it can do. It cannot amend the Treaty as such, for that is in the province of Ministers and subject to the agreement with the other members of the Union. It can consider the Treaty and come to a conclusion about it and express that opinion. It might choose to ratify it. It might choose to ratify it but make that ratification subject to a referendum. It might refuse to ratify it but insist on a referendum to confirm their decision anyway. Or it might simply refuse to ratify it.
Labour will be fully whipped at all stages. The pay roll vote will support Brown, therefore, whilst Labour opponents of the Treaty will have to take career-threatening decisions if they wish to put principle above party. It remains to be seen just how strong Labour opposition actually is.
The Liberal ‘Democrats’ all stood, as did the Labour party, for election on the basis that they would support a referendum on the Constitution but would campaign for a ‘Yes’ vote: an entirely honourable position, if misguided on their recommendation. Since then, however, Ming Campbell has dishonourably disavowed that promise and pronounced the treaty to be very different from that upon which his party had promised to support a referendum. He having been taken to the knacker’s yard, both aspirants to the leadership have also said they are against a referendum.
It may well be that they have done so because they fear having to campaign in favour of a deeply unpopular treaty at a time when they are themselves unpopular, believing that that will further damage their electoral prospects. When their own necks are at stake, the ‘democrat’ part of their name instead can go hang instead.
For the Conservatives the picture is much more complex. There is considerable advantage to be gained if only they know how to go about it. After all Brown is offering them a golden opportunity to remind the public day in and day out of his dishonourable retreat from a key manifesto promise. Brown knows that, which is why he has laid a honey trap into which he hopes the Tories will fall. This is, as we have noted earlier, the provision of many hours, days and more of Parliamentary time in which old Tory divisions over the Union might come out and drive the good ship Cameron onto the rocks.
In addition he hopes that the Tories backbenchers may hijack the process and take the argument beyond a mere argument about manifesto promises and convert it into a full blown debate on the principle of our membership of the Union which will both bore the electorate to death and frighten them off the idea of a referendum. At the very least he hopes that the Tory Backbenchers will indeed get bogged down in the minutiae of the Treaty which will be a turn off for the public.
The Tories can only hope to make progress if they are disciplined on this. That will involve arriving at a feasible position to take on the Treaty which will attract the support of all but a few feeble-minded Europhiles and behind which the Eurosceptics are prepared to march, for now.
He already has created a problem for himself in this regard. In anticipation of an autumn election he wrote in the Sun at the end of September:
Today, I will give this cast-iron guarantee: If I become PM a Conservative government will hold a referendum on any EU treaty that emerges from these negotiations.
No treaty should be ratified without consulting the British people in a referendum.
That will seem to all but the most nit-picking of readers to be a clear, unambiguous and unqualified promise to hold a referendum on the Treaty come what may. When the promise was given he could not know when the election would be held and therefore for all he knew he would be PM after ratification and indeed after the treaty had come into force. This therefore is an open promise to hold a referendum come what may. It is not qualified in any way by the second paragraph and there is no suggestion that his is a promise which is restricted to a Treaty which is unratified or not in force.
After all, that is the logic of saying that they will campaign for a ‘No’ vote. Such a position can only be on the basis that the Treaty is not in the best interests of the UK. The Treaty does not cease to be against the interests of the UK merely because it has been ratified or has come into force.
Both he and William Hague have shown signs of trying to backslide on this promise already and I have already posted on the issue: here, here, here and here. This has angered many MPs. If that Eurosceptic wing is not to go its own way down the path of attacking the principle of membership instead of concentrating on the issue of a referendum and why this Treaty is to be defeated, they must be reassured that there is something in it for them. That can only come with a promise of a referendum in any event on the Treaty, though if it should come after the Treaty comes into force it will be a very different ball game.
I concur with Richard North’s analysis (here) as to how that might be achieved, save that I have no faith whatsoever in the Union countenancing any sort of renegotiation of the Treaty by the other 26 members. The EuroNabobery has not spent the last five years in trying to get this through just to have it unpicked a couple of years down the line. I believe they will rather call our bluff, even if we do threaten to withhold the moolah. In that event I believe that the only realistic negotiation is that of a different relationship of the UK with the Union, one which I would see as the first cut in a slow but complete ‘death by a thousand cuts’ for our Nation being in thrall to the Union.
That requires Cameron to grasp the nettle. If he makes it clear he will hold such a referendum, then he can hope to impose such discipline that will enable the maximum to be extracted from the present process. With that he can conduct a coherent and consistent campaign now against the treaty.
How to do it? Firstly the Tories must concentrate on the narrow issue of a referendum and the dishonourable position that Brown has got himself into by refusing it, on the spurious grounds that it is somehow both different from the original constitution and also a different treaty from that signed by the other 26 members of the Union.
Thus the emphasis of debate must be to show the degree to which the Treaty of Lisbon is identical or similar to the original Constitution. Since this is readily acknowledged by the rest of the Union’s bosses, something of which people are already well aware, that will easily fit with people’s preconceptions of the Treaty. In so doing some attention needs to be given to the mantra “the constitutional concept is abandoned”. That too can easily be demonstrated to be rubbish.
Secondly they must attempt to show in a broad and digestible way the most power-grabbing nation-building aspects of the Treaty. If people are left with the broad impression that, contrary to what Brown has said, the Treaty in fact establishes all the institutions of government and represents a fundamental shift of power, that will accord with their suspicions. On the other hand they must avoid detail like the plague. Detail is boring. Detail is death.
Thirdly they must demonstrate how irrelevant the so-called red-lines are in the context of the whole, a mere pinprick on a rhino’s posterior, so to speak and emphasise their fragility. Again this will resonate with people’s suspicions.
Fourthly they must avoid at all costs allowing the debate to be widened into one on the principle of membership as a whole. That is the trap set for them by Ming Campbell and now the other would-be Lib ‘Dem’ leaders. In that argument Brown’s duplicity will be lost. Regrettably Nigel Farage and UKIP have already fallen headlong into that trap. Cameron must not allow himself to follow.
It may not win us a referendum now but it will have allowed the political damage to Brown to fester and for the perception of him as a dishonourable, dishonest, cowardly shyster to be maximized. It will also permit Cameron to remain consistent for the day when he becomes Prime Minister: he can then say, “I shall now do what that which I promised and upon which we have campaigned”.
I wrote of Cameron grasping a nettle. There is a second one to be grasped as well. A huge boil has grown on the UK’s body politic: it is our relationship to the Union. With unfailing regularity the political elite refuses to address it and arrogates to itself all wisdom concerning it. It refuses to acknowledge that the People might have another idea of what that relationship ought to be and continues down the path of ‘ever-closer Union’ regardless of what we want.
Whilst such arrogance persists, the political elite can never hope to recover the respect and, above all, the trust of the People. For that reason, for Cameron not to address what relationship we wish to have with the Union would be to miss a perfect, perhaps the last, opportunity to secure the clear and whole-hearted consent of the British people to its involvement with Europe. Otherwise it will remain a running sore that will fester to the point of mortification.