Monday, 23 November 2009

No EU referendum? No majority.

UPDATE - 1 December 2009: A new poll in today's Independent further confirms the trend in public opinion against the Tories, since David Cameron's statement confirming he will not hold an EU referendum.

As the trend is enough to bring about a hung parliament, it's time for Mr Cameron to decide whether or not he wants to govern - and correct the EU referendum mistake that has triggered this downward spiral in public support.


A new poll published in yesterday's Observer has further stoked speculation that a recent reverse in public support for the Conservatives may bring about a hung parliament at the next general election.

Whereas last month's Ipsos-Mori poll saw a 7% jump in the Conservative rating, this month's results - following the announcement of David Cameron's new EU policy - shows a stark reverse.

The poll shows Tory support down by 6% and Labour up 5%.

A failure of either of the two main parties to win a working majority would put the EU-fanatical Liberal Democrats into a position of power to dictate policy in return for helping one or another govern.

Any deal with the Conservatives would very likely involve the chopping of EU-confrontational ideas like a UK Sovereignty Bill and the return of certain powers from the EU that David Cameron recently outlined.

Trust test failed

The Conservative party and its supporters would be foolish if they failed to notice how renewed predictions of a hung Parliament have started after David Cameron not only ditched a very public "cast iron guarantee" of a vote on the Lisbon Treaty, but contradicted his own stated principles by failing to pledge any replacement EU referendum at all.

Whatever technical arguments can be made in justification of his updated stance following the removal of the final hurdles blocking the Lisbon Treaty's ratification, Cameron's new policy totally fails the trust test.

Somehow, the Westminster Village consistently fails to recognise that this is the most damaging test of all to fail.

A large proportion of people wanted a say on the scale of the EU's powers and now the Tories have become just like the other parties in preventing us having one.

That's the supremely damaging message that will have resonated most strongly from Cameron's recent statement.

In a bizarre move for a party that at best can hope to win a small majority at the next general election, the significant support that comes with an EU referendum was just thrown away and no striking attempt was made to hold onto it.

New referendum

The impact is now being seen in the polls. Predictably, the Conservatives are falling back into the low levels of trust and public support the other two parties have experienced since their own EU promise-breaking episodes.

But this emerging danger for Conservative prospects at the next general election can still be nipped in the bud - by a new EU referendum pledge.

But it had better come quickly, before momentum builds further in the wrong direction and it becomes impossible for Cameron to prevent near-triumph turning into tragedy.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Tories take poll hit after dropping EU referendum

The first evidence that David Cameron's abandonment of his pledge to hold an EU referendum will hit the Tories electorally is provided by the latest Populus opinion poll, published in The Times today.

The poll, taken over the weekend, shows the Conservatives have registered a fall in their support, dropping to 39% - reportedly "at the lower end of their recent range".

Meanwhile UKIP have seen a striking gain, going up from 2.3 to 4.2%. According to the paper, excluding the two months around the recent EU parliament elections, this is "the highest level since 2005."

In another bad sign for David Cameron, figures for likelihood to vote among Tory voters also fell.

This reinforces recent reports and evidence on Tory grass-roots sites like ConservativeHome that the lack of a referendum pledge in David Cameron's recent EU statement is causing hassle for candidates, demoralising the party's activists and driving away potential voters.

Early referendum

When questioned specifically on the referendum issue, the poll shows that 46% said they thought that there "should be a referendum early in the next Parliament on the general issue of Britain's relations with the EU".

A figure of 48% are inaccurately reported as "backing the Cameron line", holding the view that "it would be pointless to have a referendum on Europe unless specific further changes in Britain’s relations with the EU were being proposed."

However, David Cameron is proposing "specific further changes" in Britain's relationship with the EU, yet is not offering a referendum. So, contrary to the report, these people are not backing David Cameron's position but should be taken as also supporting a vote.

In a worrying sign for the party of re-emerging splits on the EU issue, 59% of Tory voters said they still wanted an "early" EU referendum of some kind.

Hung parliament

Peter Riddell comments that if the Conservatives were to win approximately a 10% greater share of the vote than Labour - as shown by current poll ratings - it is uncertain that the Tories would win an absolute majority in the next House of Commons.

Because of the scale of the past three Tory defeats, the party still has a mountain to climb in terms of the seats they will need to win any kind of absolute majority in the next Parliament.

It simply can't afford to throw away support that could make a win-or-lose difference in countless constituencies.

Second thoughts

While it doesn't in itself represent a wholescale shift in opinion, this poll should nevertheless set off alarm bells within the Conservative Party as to whether dropping any kind of EU referendum pledge was a big mistake.

It would be no surprise to us if many thousands of voters are now be thinking: if David Cameron won't trust us enough to let us decide where ultimate governing power should lie, why should we trust him enough to make him our Prime Minister?

While the lack of a referendum commitment may not spark a downward spiral in the polls for the Conservatives, in diminishing trust among a small but statistically significant number of voters in each constituency, it is likely to have installed a glass ceiling of support through which David Cameron will now find it impossible to break.

Could David Cameron's refusal to replace his Lisbon referendum pledge with a commitment to giving people a say on his new EU policy have just cost him a majority government?

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

No referendum, no trust

Those hoping for a sign that David Cameron is serious about changing Britain's relationship with the EU will be disappointed by today's statement.

Perhaps not so much over its proposals for a confrontational 'Sovereignty Bill' or plans to take back control over some policy areas from the EU.

But certainly over his unwillingness to consult people in a new referendum, and the worrying signals that sends out about the strength of his commitment to securing those changes.

New guarantees

In a speech this afternoon, the Conservative leader set out a new set of policies on the EU, after the final barriers were removed from the path of the Lisbon Treaty into law. These include:

- amending the European Communities Act 1972 to install a 'referendum lock', prohibiting any further treaty transferring power to the EU becoming law without approval by referendum.

- a 'Sovereignty Bill' to "make it clear that ultimate authority stays in this country, in our Parliament". Such a move would put UK law in direct contravention of Declaration 17 attached to the Lisbon Treaty, not to mention ECJ case law, which asserts the EU's legal primacy over its member countries.

This is what led recently to concern in Brussels over a similar assertion made by the German Constitutional Court.

- opposition to the 'ratchet clauses' within the Lisbon Treaty allowing further transfers of power to the EU without the need for a new Treaty. Less significantly, Cameron pledged to "change the law so that any use of a ratchet clause by a future government would require approval by Parliament." But since a government by definition commands a majority in Parliament, such approval would hardly be such a struggle to secure.

The more significant point here was Cameron's statement "We do not believe that any of these so-called ratchet clauses should be used to hand over more powers from Britain to the EU."

- opt-outs from parts of EU social and employment legislation, the Charter of Fundamental Rights and restricting the EU's role in criminal justice. Trying to take back any powers from the EU will cause interesting upheaval. The EU is simply not built to transmit power in that direction - rather, to steadily suck all power to the EU centre.

However, Cameron's idea of "limiting the European Court of Justice's jurisdiction over criminal law to its pre-Lisbon level" is hardly a restriction at all. S
ince, even before Lisbon was dreamt of, the ECJ had imbued the EU with the power to set criminal sanctions - a definitive power of statehood never set out in any EU treaty.

Confining the ECJ's activism to pre-Lisbon levels will not go nearly far enough, even towards Mr Cameron's own limited own objectives.

Referendum contradiction

However the key contradiction in the Tory leader's statement came when he first decried the need for an alternative referendum on his negotiating aims as having "no practical effect". Yet later said he would consider such a vote at the end of a first Conservative term of government if his negotiating aims hadn't been met.

"If those circumstances were to occur," he said - referring to a failure to secure the opt-outs he seeks - "we would not rule out a referendum on a wider package of guarantees."

But what "practical effect" does he think such a referendum would have at that point, but not either in advance of his negotiations to strengthen his hand, or afterwards in approval of the deal he had achieved?

After all, as we highlighted yesterday, is this not the man who in The Sun attacked Gordon Brown for having the "arrogant belief that he - and only he - has the right to decide what's best for Britain's future"?

The man who said "Giving people freedom and control over their lives is one of the things that makes me a Conservative."

And what more fundamental question of freedom and control is there than to decide for ourselves where governing power should lie?

All about trust

Cameron's proposals contain some interesting steps. From our point of view, they can only be first steps. But a journey has to start somewhere, and at least it appears he is facing in the right direction.

Talking today of the Labour and Liberal Democrat failure to deliver a promised referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, Cameron said: "It ranks alongside the expenses scandal as one of the reasons that trust in politics has broken down" - echoing a point the DM was making on this blog back in June.

Yet now he expects us to trust him based only on more words in a party manifesto? It's just not enough, and he cannot possibly expect it to be.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Cameron's moment of truth

With this afternoon's confirmation that the Czech President, Vaclav Klaus, has finally signed the Lisbon Treaty, all questions turn to how David Cameron is going to respond.

Klaus's signature, following a valiant resistance, removes the last remaining hurdle preventing the treaty from becoming law.

David Cameron gave a "cast iron guarantee" of a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty in an article in The Sun back in September 2007.

In the same article he said of Gordon Brown's refusal to give us a say that "It's the arrogant belief that he - and only he - has the right to decide what's best for Britain's future."

So is Cameron seriously intending to ditch the idea of an EU referendum altogether - and be condemned by his own words in Britain's most widely read newspaper?

Is there any integrity to his broader rhetoric about fixing our 'broken politics'?

Lisbon problem

Cameron's new difficulty with the Lisbon referendum is not hard to see.

Once ratified, the Lisbon Treaty will be merged into the existing EU treaties and become practically impossible to reverse in one go.

Voting weights will change, EU positions and institutions will be created - such as those of the full-time President of the Council of Ministers and High Representative for Foreign Affairs - and the EU's powers will be amended across the broad range of policy areas its institutions now preside over.

The 26 other national governments would have to agree to any changes, and are not likely to agree to reversing all this in one go.

Britain could of course still hold a retrospective referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, even after it's ratified. But at that stage, little practical change could come of the result.

As a symbolic vote, finally putting on public record Britain's opposition to the EU centralisation project, the idea of a Lisbon referendum still has some merit.

But in this 'new situation', shouldn't we be aiming higher than that? Aiming for something that brings about real change?

New treaties

What David Cameron will face, if he wins the next election, will not be the Lisbon Treaty any more. Rather, the newly amended versions of the main EU treaties, incorporating the Lisbon changes across the EU's entire field of operation.

His position, so far, is that in this case "political integration will have gone too far" and "the Treaty would lack democratic legitimacy in this country."

Towards addressing the scale of political integration, he has talked of reclaiming powers for Britain in specific, targetted areas - such as social and employment policies. Areas like justice and fisheries have also been discussed.

In doing so, he could seek to roll back the Lisbon Treaty piecemeal. But such a plan would go further, and reclaim powers conceded in treaties long before Lisbon existed.

More broadly, such a demand would undermine the entire idea and direction of the EU as we know it today.

But we've yet to hear how Mr Cameron proposes to resolve the EU's "lack of democratic legitimacy".

Dangerous path

As the only major party that has, thus far, stuck to its guns in supporting a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, the Conservatives must tread very carefully if they hope to carry over public faith and support to such a new strategy.

Most people don't trust politicians, and many eurosceptics don't trust the Conservatives any more than the other major parties.

What must first be made crystal clear to those within the Westminster Village is that trust will not be forthcoming based alone on fine words in a Conservative manifesto.

We've been there and done that. Labour and the Lib Dems, with their broken manifesto promises, have put paid to trust ever being given again on that basis alone.

Rollback referendum

If David Cameron wants to be seen as a leader - as someone who can be trusted to act - what's needed in tomorrow's policy announcement is a firm pledge to hold an EU referendum of some sort early in the first term of a Conservative government.

If not on the Lisbon treaty, then that referendum should be held on the package of powers that Cameron proposes to repatriate - on Britain's 'new deal' with the EU.

This pledge of a replacement EU vote is the only possible bridge by which supporters of a Lisbon referendum will feel able to transfer from that "cast iron guarantee" to the new policy.

The alternative - a complex renegotiation plan and no referendum pledge - is a path that threatens the Conservatives with internal divisions, agitation by eurosceptics both inside and outside the party, public mistrust and, ultimately, election loss.

Make or break

Cameron's announcement tomorrow might not in itself be enough to win him the next general election.

But if it lacks a replacement EU referendum for the one we were promised on the Lisbon Treaty, it could easily lose it for him.