The prime minister’s cut and run strategy

The game is on, it seems. As I have previously expressed, I had fully expected David Cameron to play the long game when it comes to the EU referendum. I had thought he would try and secure a set of reforms that could easily be portrayed as significant – which in itself would take quite some time – and use the media inflated “drama” of the negotiation to and fro to his advantage. I believed he would give his reforms a boost by aligning them with the next EU treaty. Thereby giving him the strongest possible pitch; a “new deal” in a reformed EU.

The next EU treaty is a long time in the making. The treaty proposals were published by the federalists Spinelli Group of MEPs, through the Bertelsmann House in late 2013: The Fundamental Law of the European Union. This proposes the completion of the economic and monetary union, and goes a long way to completing the political union and significantly increasing the power of the EU in many profound ways; taking a major stride forward to effective statehood.

It also proposes formalising the “two-tier” structure of the EU, recognising non-eurozone members as having an “associate status”. Though this is simply recognition of the fact that integration is limited by not having yet adopted the Euro, the proposals for “associate status” would integrate the UK deeper into the EU than it is now, and would seal its subordinated status. Despite this reality, I believed it a distinct possibility that it would be spun as a victory for Britain; an associate membership in a reformed EU.

ON 22nd June 2015 the Five Presidents Report was published, setting out the schedule for the implementation of the completion of economic and monetary union. In the Spring of 2017 Juncker is set to publish a White Paper which will set out the “concrete measures of a more far-reaching nature” to complete the EMU’s institutional architecture. This comprises the beginning of a transition from stage 1 to stage 2, with the ultimate aim being the full implementation of treaty and the completion of the EMU by 2025 at the latest.

I thought that using the publicity of the White Paper, and the concrete proposals for coming treaty change and EU reform, combined with a handful of reforms would be the springboard for the government offer, pushed until late 2017, when the referendum would be fought between a “new deal” in a “reformed EU” and the vision of the Brexit campaigners. That was the long game, the grand strategy.

The way events have transpired has cast severe doubt on this, and it seems I am to be proven wrong. It looks as if there will be no long game, no great national debate, no major clash of visions that settles the EU question for good in Britain. It looks like it may be the old cut and run. With the government taking their chances while the Leave campaign groups are disorganised, and the Eurosceptic scene is still dominated by uncertain visions and unanswered questions that are very unlikely to convince a risk averse public.

It became apparent that the rug was about to be pulled from under us when the government perpetrated an act of constitutional vandalism to allow the possibility of an early referendum by scrapping the six-month gap between legislation and the beginning of the campaign as recommended by the Electoral Commission.

It was expected that there would be a 10-month gap in all between the passing of administrative regulations for the referendum (not yet completed) and the holding of the poll. This was comprised of the six-month gap, six weeks for the EC to choose the official campaign, and then ten weeks for the official campaign itself.

The Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 (PPERA) set out the minimum period for a referendum campaign, including the component parts making up the whole referendum period.

Under this Act, the referendum period starts with the announcement of the date of the poll and ends with the poll itself. But PPERA also allows the first four weeks to be taken up with applications for designated lead campaigners, with another two weeks allowed for the EC to designate, taking six weeks in all.

The Act also states that the date of the poll “shall not be earlier than 28 days” after the end of the designation period, making the referendum period a minimum of ten weeks. As six of those weeks would be taken up by designation, the designated group would only have four weeks to campaign.

The Referendum Act addresses this; with an amendment which allows for the six-week designation period to be separated from the referendum period, and as the referendum period must still be ten weeks, that gives us 16 weeks on top of the six-month gap: 10 months.

However, it is now clear that although the EC is unequivocal in its recommendation that the six-month gap should be honoured; it is not strictly a legal requirement. It is ordinarily perceived as an obligation on government to follow EC recommendations (the six-month gap applies to referendums and elections), and not to do so does leave open the potential for legal challenges.

This has been foreseen however, and the government appears to be pulling a fast one. It is triggering the poll date and designation period by Regulation, which will be approved unless there is enough opposition in the Commons, and as an act of Parliament is unlikely to be challenged by the courts.

To make matters worse, the assumption has been –  based on the aforementioned Referendum Act – that the six-week designation process would take place entirely separately from the referendum campaign period itself (so 16 weeks in all). However, as it turns out, the government does not necessarily have to separate these. Thus the designation period could count within the 10-week campaign period, meaning basically there would only be 4 weeks for the official group to campaign. It would be morally questionable, but not legally.

To summarise, this all means that the prime minister has cleared the way for a June referendum which would means I have to admit that I have been wrong on several counts. This is not yet definite, there could be disputes from other Member States, leading to further drama and a “back to the drawing board” moment, with a reversion to the long game… but I doubt it.

I have been taken aback by the enthusiasm shown by the prime minister for the profoundly unremarkable result of his negotiations. I have been surprised by the transparency of his dishonesty about the significance of the reforms achieved. It really does seem like he has decided to cut and run, call a swift referendum safe in the knowledge that by the time the public fully engage the poll will be hurtling towards us, and the risk averse will take their uncertainty to the booth and vote to Remain. That looks to be the strategy.

It will be probably be enough for David Cameron to win the referendum, but to settle this question for a generation? Never. The debate will have been quashed rather than opened up. More importantly, we will not have voted for the status quo, but to remain in an EU moving towards far deeper integration, a vast increase in power, and great strides to a unified Europe under a supreme government. As the EU enters this next phase, the British people will realise we have not had the necessary open and honest debate, and a strong case will be made for another plebiscite to endorse or reject our place in the Union envisioned in The Fundamental Law.

Don’t get me wrong, I have not given up. The government and the remainers will have to campaign on the merits of the EU as they see it, rather than on a platform of reform that has already been torn to shreds by the media and would simply insult the public. I will continue to argue the case, but in such a short space of time the odds are very much against us. It may be the Brexit campaigners that have to play the long game.


Ben is the Conservatives for Liberty Web Editor and a Brexit campaigner.  He blogs at The Sceptic Isle. Follow him on Twitter: @TheScepticIsle

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The views expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Conservatives for Liberty