DAVOS/SWITZERLAND, 29JAN10 - David Cameron, Le...

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On Monday 24th of October, we will see a vote in the House of Commons on whether the UK should hold a referendum on British membership of the European Union. While the vote is non-binding on the government, it has been a contentious topic over the last few days, with Prime Minister David Cameron threatening his party with a three-line whip (a method of controlling the vote which would mean any government ministers which want to deviate from the party’s position would have to resign their posts). Today, Philip Hammond, the Defence Secretary has said that despite unhappiness amongst some Tory backbenchers and the threat of resignations, the “whip remains because the motion is contrary to government policy”.

So, what does this all mean?

The motion that is being voted on was proposed by MP David Nuttal. It asks for a referendum on whether…

1. the United Kingdom should remain a member of the European Union
2. leave the European Union
3. renegotiate the terms of its membership in order to create a new relationship based on trade and cooperation

Apparently, around 70 Conservative MPs have signed up in support of such a motion, along with most of the DUP and some Labour MPs.

What will happen tomorrow?

Tomorrow will be a test of Cameron’s strength. IF he puts a three-line whip in place, then this becomes less an issue of European politics, and more an issue (at least for tomorrow’s debate) about the party leader’s control over his own backbenchers. The size of the rebellion could set the tone for the entire Parliament.

I cannot imagine that those 60-70 MPs will retract their support for the motion before the vote, as this will lead to them being slaughtered by party activists – recent polls have shown that 81% of Tory members and activists want their MP to vote for the Motion.

Beyond this, how many could rebel? If the party whips have not done their job this weekend, then we may see a sizeable rebellion and accusations that Cameron cannot control his own party. If Cameron is willing to impose an iron fist on his own party, the rebellion will not stretch far.

As Philip Cowley and Mark Stuart, Professor and Research Fellow respectively at the University of Nottingham, have detailed, the size of the rebellions on Europe is important. The largest Conservative Government backbencher rebellion on Europe on whipped business was under John Major – 41 Conservative MPs voted against the Third Reading of the Maastricht Bill on the 20th of May, 1993. Coincidentally, 41 is also the size of the largest Conservative rebellion in this Parliament – on an amendment to the Protection of Freedoms Bill.

They also note that “by Friday, if you combined the list of those Conservative MPs who had signed the referendum with those who have already defied their whips over Europe since May 2010, you got a figure of 78”. This will, already, be a larger rebellion than ever seen over Europe, and ever seen in this Parliament. The tone may change in a moment, a single vote.

If we see a large rebellion, then Europe will keep pushing its way to the forefront of British debate. If the numbers drop, and we perhaps even do see people rescinding their support, then it could go to the backburner for some months. But the Right-wing of the Conservatives will resent the Cameroon leadership, and may rebel on many other issues – particularly if we see a resentment of the “Europhile” Liberal Democrats.

What will happen in the event of a referendum?

Don’t get me wrong – I don’t think that the vote will pass, nor will we see a referendum any time soon. But just in case… the first poll on the subject by YouGov has found…

15% to stay in
28% to leave
47% would chose negotiations

If it is reduced to a simple In-Out referendum, then we see 31%/52% – a clear win for leaving the EU. THIS is why I feel that supporting the repatriation of powers is the only way for pro-EUers to deal with this referendum.

While backbenchers demand action, Ministers are painfully aware of the dangers of international jenga. If they bid too high and too early, it would merely serve to prompt the eurozone to exclude the fringe EU states, and sort out their own treaty on an inter-governmental basis. If this is done, Britain loses ALL leverage, and is side-lined for the remainder of history.

On the other hand – the government can aim to repatriate more minor powers at first, e.g. Peter Bone has proposed a Bill to repatriate powers of British fisheries policy. It’s a long running problem for Eurosceptics and may allow all sides to save face.

What are the alternatives?

There are two amendments on the books tomorrow. George Eustice, the major organiser of the Eurosceptic group of backbenchers who met last month has tabled one –

“This House calls upon the Government to publish a White Paper during the next session of parliament setting out the powers and competences that the Government would seek to repatriate from the EU, to commence a renegotiation of Britain’s relationship with the EU and to put the outcome of those negotiations to a national referendum.”

I believe Eustice thinks he’s doing the government a favour on this issue, but they haven’t supported him. Government policy is to hold a referendum if and when there is a transfer of powers from Westminster to Brussels, most obviously via a new treaty. An amendment by Richard Harrington, MP for Watford, is much closer to this position.

Eustice’s amendment leaves the government in a difficult position if they renegotiate the terms of membership… and it fails to do the job in the electorate’s eyes. In many ways this means it would be better to have the referendum, then any form of negotiation.

What would be worse is if the EU doesn’t allow us to renegotiate. Sceptics seem to want to be free-riders on the single market, without the regulation and contribution that come hand in hand for the rest of our continental cousins. Why would they? Labour market, social and environmental rules are crucial for the EU. They are integral to the bargain of the EU, dating back to the start of the single market. People feared it would be a race to the bottom on standards and working conditions.

Why would the continent agree to us free-riding? What will happen if they don’t?

The Motion simply cannot pass. Miliband has imposed his own three-line whip on Labour MPs (his main defence is that a referendum would be a distraction at this moment in time) and the Liberal Democrats oppose a referendum without a large transfer of power having taken place. However, if we see a new round of treaty talks, then these parties could support a referendum. It will be interesting tomorrow to see which Labour and LibDems will rebel (some sources say 10 LibDems could rebel, Adrian Sanders of Torbay for one, and I predict around a dozen Labourites). There is a question of whether there would be so many Tory rebels if Labour hadn’t guaranteed the motion would fail (essentially, no).
But the main questions are of how large the rebellion will be, and how this will affect the government repatriating powers.