Over the years, calls for referenda on a variety of subjects (usually, but not exclusively, to do with the EU) have been met with a uniform response from those opposing the call: you don’t like what the Government does on any given subject, you can vote them out at the next General Election. The flip side of this argument is that, if your party gets elected, it then has a mandate to deal with a variety of issues – including Europe – as it wishes, without further public consultation, for up to another five years.
This, back in 2007, as I noted the other day, was not good enough for Young Dave. He gave his “cast iron guarantee” that the Lisbon Treaty would be put to a referendum. And he gave it to the readers of the Murdoch flagship Sun. So who has said today – about an hour ago as I write – that a General Election victory would confer a mandate to renegotiate the UK’s relationship with the EU? Step forward Young Dave. Apart from blaming Labour and the Lib Dems for the Tories’ problems – perhaps Pa Broon and Ming Campbell sneaked in and wrote his Sun article without him noticing – Cameron has now all but abandoned the referendum idea.
Well, except for any future transfer of power to the EU, that is. But here there is a potential grey area. Is a change from unanimous vote to qualified majority voting (QMV) a transfer of power or streamlining of decision making? Who decides? Is the accession of more member states, making the six month presidency a rarer event for the UK, a transfer of power or merely an acceptable price for enlargement? What if enlargement means a reduction in the number of each member state’s bloc of MEPs? Is that a transfer of power?
More likely is that a future Government, of whatever stripe, will have sufficient room for manoeuvre to make the Cameron referendum promise meaningless. But his followers will undoubtedly show unanimity and fall in line. I note that Tim Montgomerie at ConservativeHome has expressed disappointment at Cameron’s speech, but expect him to be nodding obediently after he sees which way the true blue wind is blowing.
Had this process involved Labour and Alastair Campbell, the news would have concerned followers being “on message”, and there would have been accusations of “spin” and “control freakery”. Those Tory cheerleaders who routinely assert their independence of thought have already, as I’ve noted, shown that their freedom of expression is in fortunately coincident step with the party leadership when it matters to the latter. Expect nothing different following this afternoon’s speech.
[UPDATE: almost immediately after first publishing this post, Iain Dale has fallen obediently into line. Ee-aw!]
[UPDATE 2: Tim Montgomerie says that there are lots of more important things that a Cameron Government would need to get on with, and he's not going to talk about Europe for a few weeks. Ee-aw!]