No call for a general election

John Major

Gordon Brown seems to have weathered the storm over his leadership of the Labour party, which has a positive consequence for the future of the Lisbon treaty. (Or rather, it avoids a negative consequence.) Specifically, the Conservatives have said that if they win a general election before the Lisbon treaty is ratified in Ireland, they will put the UK’s own parliamentary ratification on hold and call a referendum on the treaty instead. Given the state of British public opinion on Europe at the moment, there is a strong chance that such a referendum would vote No and kill the treaty.

Commentators have remarked that it would be a rather peculiar occurrence, a government calling a referendum of choice and then campaigning for a No vote. More than that, the rhetoric and escalation in public feelings that a No campaign might provoke could make it hard to rebuild relations in Europe afterwards. Populism has its risks.

I remember Anne Enger Lahnstein, leader of the No campaign in the Norwegian referendum in 1994, being rebuked by the other party leaders after she used harsh words about the other national government leaders’ foreign policies, for those countries remained Norway’s Nato allies after all. David Cameron, though, evidently has no fear of putting on a peculiar spectacle and is untroubled by the threat of populist nationalism, if it will help him kill the Lisbon treaty.

(The case against a referendum on the Lisbon treaty has been well-rehearsed on this blog, here for example.)

However, the possibility of such a referendum being held depends on when David Cameron can get into Downing Street. He has said that the referendum pledge only holds as long as the Irish have not held their own referendum, which is due probably in October. But as long as there is no general election, there will be no referendum, Labour being opposed to such a move.

And the prospect of a general election has itself been postponed. Gordon Brown’s team used the supposed need for an immediate general election in the event of a leadership change, and Labour wipeout that would surely follow an immediate general election, to deter potential challengers during the recent leadership turmoil. By clinging on to office by such means, Gordon Brown has given the Lisbon treaty a breathing space. If he can hang on to his job until after the Irish referendum, probably in October, he may turn out to be the saviour of Lisbon. This would make him an unlikely hero of the pro-European cause, but a hero nevertheless.

If this does not sound a particularly edifying position for the pro-Europeans to find themselves in, I think I agree. Hoping that a government that has made a thorough hash of the pro-European case can cling on bitterly to the last scraps of its right to govern is awkward and uncomfortable, but it may be that that is what the Lisbon treaty, and even British membership of the EU, requires. (The pro-European strategy has been so mishandled in recent years that nothing better is really deserved.)

It remains within the rules of British democracy, just. However, it is not unprecedented.

In June 1995, the then prime minister John Major resigned as leader of the Conservative party and called a leadership election within his own party. Labour, in opposition and well ahead in the opinion polls, demanded instead a general election. The Conservatives, for their part, justified their position by pointing to the resignation of Harold Wilson 20 years earlier and the fact that there had been no Labour calls for a general election then. (Read Hansard on the subject here – column 1086)

What Conservative MP Sir Anthony Grant chose to describe as the “monumental humbug” of the Labour party then might easily be said of his own party now.

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