DAVID Cameron seems to have kicked the issue of Europe into the long grass until at least after the next general election by appeasing the strong eurosceptic element on his back benches.
That was clearly his aim, but the question is whether a referendum on staying in Europe can be won as he hopes.
Within minutes of the Prime Minister’s speech about the referendum yesterday, the eurosceptic Tory MP Douglas Carswell tweeted: “Cameron’s opened the exit door with a mighty shove! We owe a huge “thank-you” to you and close colleagues (also Ukip)”.
Subsequent comments in the blogosphere and over the airwaves left no-one in doubt that the eurosceptics within Ukip and the outer margins of the Conservative Party believed Britain was storming towards a wide open exit-door. From a superficial point of view, their confidence was well founded. According to a poll conducted in November last year, 56 per cent would vote to leave the EU. Other polls, slightly less scientific, suggest even larger majorities. Buoyed by these results, Carswell reportedly said Cameron’s speech was one “he had waited for his entire political career”.
But a 56 per cent lead is not overwhelming. In 1975, when Harold Wilson promised and delivered a “renegotiated referendum”, those in favour of leaving the EEC had a 65-35 per cent lead in the polls. When the voters went to the polls, 67 per cent voted to stay in Europe.
Cameron is likely to get some cosmetic concessions. He will claim he has won; that the negotiations were a success. The ultra-sceptics will cry foul, but Miliband and Clegg will have no choice but to support Cameron. Hence, in the subsequent referendum, Labour and the Liberal Democrats will throw their weight behind a Yes vote. As in 1975, funding and support from trade unions and big business will slowly but surely torpedo the eurosceptics’ lead and in the end, the voters will choose to stay in Europe.
• Dr Matt Qvortrup’s book Direct Democracy will be published in May this year.