Lib Dem MPs to abstain on Tories’ EU in/out referendum bill?

by Stephen Tall on June 14, 2013

EU flag - Some rights reserved by European ParliamentOn 5th July, Tory MP James Wharton’s private member’s bill — laying out Conservative plans for an in-out referendum on the EU in 2017 — will get its second reading.

The Tories are on a three-line whip to support it (very unusual for a private member’s bill). Labour has confirmed they’ll shun the vote, branding the bill “a gimmick, a political stunt”. The Lib Dem parliamentary party will decide its position in a couple of weeks’ time, but is likely to abstain with Labour.

It’s a potentially risky decision, giving the appearance of saying we don’t trust the public to decide. That’s a view put forward by Lib Dem blogger Mark Thompson, for instance, who wrote in the wake of David Cameron’s January speech announcing the concession of an in/out referendum to his backbenchers:

We should agree with allowing a referendum once terms have been negotiated. That will help to neutralise it as an issue. It’s perfectly consistent with our position as we can clearly argue that renegotiated terms are a change and therefore our promise of a referendum should then kick in. This actually gives us a way out of the political cul-de-sac we have got ourselves into on this issue in recent weeks. We should take it and back Cameron.

It’s a persuasive, and pretty tempting, argument. But I don’t buy it. As I wrote last month:

The Tories say we should ask the people now: and we’re saying not yet. Tough sell. But when politicians avoid the easy choice (in this case conceding a referendum) it’s actually worth asking why. The answer’s clear: we don’t yet know what shape or form the EU will take once the Eurozone crisis is resolved (which may happen peaceably or messily). Ask the question now and you may end up having to ask it again in three years’ time.

To date, Lib Dem members have pretty solidly backed the leadership line on this, with clear majorities against offering a referendum according to our surveys. In April, 58% said the party shouldn’t include a pledge for an in/out referendum on our 2015 manifesto compared with 34% of members who thought the party should.

As I’ve noted before, there’s a deep irony in all this. The person best placed to keep the UK in the European Union is David Cameron. His speech this week in the lead-up to the G8 summit was unambiguously pro-European, as the New Statesman’s Rafael Behr rightly noted.

But if the Tories fail to win the 2015 election, as currently seems likely, Mr Cameron’s successor will be a better-off-outer. Together with the press, he or she will run a populist, nationalist, Little Englander campaign that could well prevail in an in/out referendum.

David Cameron may not always look like much of a Good European. But for those of us who are pro-internationalist and believe the UK should remain within the EU (a reformed EU, that is) the current Tory leader truly is our best hope.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum, and also writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.