An odd plan for a referendum

Adam Afriyie MP (picture Tiglath-Pileser IV)

Adam Afriyie MP (picture Tiglath-Pileser IV)

Rogue Tory backbencher Adam Afriyie – the man spoken of by his friends as a possible challenger to David Cameron or the British equivalent of Barack Obama – has exceeded either of those two in his ability to miss the point.  He has called for a referendum on EU membership to be held in October 2014, in an article in yesterday’s Mail on Sunday.  (Read it here.)

The current Conservative strategy is to renegotiate the terms of British membership of the EU after the next general election, in May 2015, and put those terms to a referendum in 2017.  A Yes vote would confirm those new terms, a No vote would see Britain leave the EU altogether.

Now, there are several problems with that strategy – will the objectives of the renegotiation be set out in the Conservative manifesto in 2015?  will the other member states be interests in agreeing to those objectives? – but at least it keeps the Tories together.  The only way to get a referendum on membership, for those who want to leave, is to get the Tories re-elected next time.  A Labour government or a Labour/Liberal Democrat coalition shows no sign of holding a membership referendum on the same terms.

There is an abiding doubt on the Tory backbenches that David Cameron really means what he says, which is why a Private Member’s Bill is being debated in parliament to enshrine the Conservative strategy in law.  Because the strategy requires further decisions by the government, an Act of Parliament this side of the election cannot guarantee a referendum after it – the next government could simply fail to pursue the renegotiation or a majority in the House of Commons could simply repeal the Act.

But it is nonetheless symbolic.  The Tories can unite around it.  (Indeed, Labour shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander claimed that it arose from the Tory party’s lack of trust in its own leader.)

Adam Afriyie’s proposal would shatter that unity.

The Tory party is divided between those who don’t like the European Union much and want the terms of British membership reformed substantially on the one hand, and those who don’t like the EU at all on the other.  The group who think that the EU is actually a good thing are a dwindling band.

David Cameron’s strategy keeps together the first two groups, and postpones the day when the former group has got to decide whether the terms of membership have changed enough.  The party remains united.

Adam Afriyie would helpfully bring forward that day to seven months before the next general election.  Nothing could be more calculated to tear the Tory party apart than a referendum on EU membership now, before any effort has been made to make the terms of membership more congenial to Tories.  Some cabinet ministers, such as Michael Gove and Owen Paterson, have left it be known that, in a referendum on the present terms, they would vote to leave.  Others are confident that they could negotiate a better deal.  The last thing that anyone needs right now is a fight, but that is what Adam Afriyie proposes.

Indeed, some mischievous Labour strategists have suggested that Labour should support the idea of a referendum on membership in 2014, perhaps seeking to amend the Private Member’s Bill to that effect, for precisely the destructive reasons set out above.  Odd that a Tory backbencher who aspires to a more senior role should plan to destroy his own party in the process.

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