Richard North, 05/12/2012  

Times 500-ref.jpgAfter what even The Times calls the "burbling" by the incoherent Mr Johnson yesterday, the paper brings news of what may be a very significant development (see left – click pic for readable copy).

David Cameron, it says, is "ready to give voters the chance of rejecting Britain's membership of the European Union". He has been persuaded that the "in-in" vote that he had been mooting would be torn apart by Tory eurosceptics and UKIP as a "phoney referendum".

Thus, he is coming round to the idea that he must give the electorate a chance to say "no" to the renegotiation deal that will form the centrepiece of his revised "Europe" policy.

However, the speech announcing all this, which was supposed to be in the autumn, and then "before Christmas" has apparently been bumped to the New Year. And, with that, under consideration are two referendums, one calling for a mandate to negotiate, and another to approve the deal – this one including the "out" option.

As to timing, if this scenario was chosen, the first referendum would be "quickly" after the general election in 2015, and the other when the negotiations were complete.

Whether this can stand remains to be seen, as neither Cameron nor anyone else have been able to offer any evidence that the "colleagues" would be prepared to negotiate. Cameron, therefore, must think very hard on how it would look if, armed with a mandate from the electorate, he went to Brussels and was refused a seat at the table.

Under these circumstances, one presumes that he would have no option to go straight for an "in-out" referendum, with the Government formally pointing to the exit. The two-stage process, therefore could have (for Cameron) undesirable results.

The Times article says that Mr Cameron is "awash" with advice about how and when to offer a referendum, and some are concerned that the longer he leaves the announcement, the more he allows others to set the agenda.

One can certainly understand the delay though for, if Cameron comes up with the right offer, the electoral calculus changes dramatically. A Conservative Party putting up a genuine referendum offer would have UKIP on the back foot, and even we could find ourselves supporting the Tories.

A genuine offer, however, would have to include a fairly clear idea of what would be sought in any negotiations, and a statement on how exactly a new government would force the "colleagues" to negotiate, if they proved unwilling to enter into discussions.

This, of course, is where any plan could fall apart. There is no mechanism by which any single member state could force the European Council to convene an IGC or – if necessary – set up a convention. And an offer from Cameron that lacks credibility would simply put him back where he started, with UKIP nipping at his heels.

Our view on all this remains that Cameron should commit to invoking Article 50 and then settle down to preparing a negotiating strategy, with a clear statement of the intended outcome. The sooner he understands that this alone is the only sure way he can achieve the new "relationship" that he professes to want, the sooner we can get down to serious business.

The one thing for certain, though, is that an open-ended promise to negotiate, without strong and convincing evidence that the "colleagues" will be prepared to sit at the table, isn't serious politics.

Mr Cameron must realise that he has frittered away any good will and trust he ever had on this issue, and as far as his "Europe" policy goes, it is he who is drinking in the Last Chance Saloon. We have travelled too many miles to be gulled by fools' gold.


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