The EU referendum – Cameron’s conundrum

It’s very exciting to emerge into a new year and have that renewed feeling of energy that comes in January. If you are a politico, or indeed if you just accept that politics is an integral part of business, then 2016 offers a treasure trove or a Pandora’s Box depending on how you view things.

There will be the ups and downs of a US Presidential Election (surely Clinton mark 2), the likelihood of an In/Out Referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU and elections to devolved administrations including for London Mayor (Zac Goldsmith needs to put his foot down if he is going to catch Sadiq Khan) and Scottish Parliamentary elections (more seats for the SNP, I suppose). The continuing weakness of the UK’s opposition parties and their inability to challenge the Tories (Labour still in deep turmoil whoever is Leader) merely adds to the intrigue and lack of certainty. There’s lots to think about and lots to do.

While the political watchers will be licking their lips in anticipation, this plethora of political events will mean British politicians are distracted and this will delay decisive policy-making. This uncertainty could frustrate economic momentum as business executives are unable to rely on anything apart from the ad hoc will of a Chancellor preparing to be Prime Minister. Business will need to speak up to be heard and tactically clever to ensure politics adds to rather than detracts from its success.

But it’s the Referendum on British membership of the EU that looms largest at home and so infatuates many senior and junior politicians. Pushed into a corner and forced to make the Referendum a Manifesto commitment at last May’s General Election, one can’t blame the Prime Minister for wanting to resolve the issue quickly. His political advisers will be wanting to progress this sooner rather than later as the likelihood of many more desperate people arriving from the Middle East this summer is high and this would be a gift for those campaigning to leave the EU.

As we head into 2016 the direction of Government spin is therefore pointing at an early summer Referendum, perhaps in June, perhaps in July. We should therefore be ready for the headlines to be dominated by EU posturing for at least the first few months of the year.

An early summer Referendum would ensure the Leave campaign had little time to build momentum towards the Referendum (a lesson from the Scottish Referendum) and it would avoid the distractions of the devolved and local elections on the 5th May, a date already ruled out by the Government for the EU Referendum. The Prime Minister’s recent diplomacy on the EU issue has been feverish and there is real desire for a deal to be agreed at the EU Council of Ministers meeting on February 18-19, something which might give him enough confidence that he can campaign and win to stay in the EU by calling for a Referendum over the summer. The legislation is in place for this with the EU Referendum Bill essentially done, and the question has been negotiated with the British people now likely to be asked whether they want to remain or leave.

UK law requires that the Prime Minister give 16 weeks’ notice and with a February announcement this suggests a first possible date of the middle of June. The 1975 EC referendum was won by those campaigning in favour in early June, but this is surely no pointer for 2016 though Cameron appears to be following the same tactics that won it for Wilson. In May and June the UK will be distracted (a little) by the European Football Championships in France and (perhaps more) by the celebrations for the Queen’s 90th Birthday (official day April 21st, but country-wide celebrations continue until mid-June). Trivial as these other events may seem in the grand scheme, for those betting on a summer Referendum the stars do seem to align more clearly around a Thursday in July (say the 7th) just before the Parliamentary Summer Recess.

So it could be that the country’s EU dilemma will be solved by the beginning of August 2016. If the UK were to stumble out of the EU then the Prime Minister would go immediately, leaving someone else to negotiate the exit. But if he wins the Prime Minister will both emerge victorious but also face post-Referendum turmoil particularly within his own Party, turmoil that would likely make his own position untenable with so many disappointed but elected Tories. With a summer Referendum, whatever the result, it’s therefore conceivable that it would be time for him to hang up his boots giving his successor time to settle the ship before a 2020 General Election.

So we will emerge into the autumn Conference season with a new London Mayor, a new Scottish Parliament and maybe a new Prime Minister. And if it’s Cameron’s last year, what odds on a new Labour Leader or Labour Party by that time too?

Photo source: Brett Jordan

Simon Whitehead

Hill & Knowlton Strategies Search