In the 1997 general election, Conservative party leader John Major was reduced to pleading with his candidates who wanted to rule out, for ever, British membership of the euro. In a theatrical gesture at a press conference, he declared:
“Whether you agree with me, disagree with me, like me or loathe me, don’t bind my hands when I am negotiating on behalf of the British people.”
Those backbenchers have, within the Tory party, won: the subject of their rebellion is now established Conservative party policy. But the echoes of a Tory prime minister struggling to bring his MPs to order over a European question can be heard today, as can the significance of John Major’s words. For what can be worse than negotiating when you have no room to manoeuvre?
Of course, if the strategy outlined in the House of Commons motion were to be followed, that is exactly what would happen. Our government would be obliged to go to the other 26 member states and ask for changes to the treaties that would disadvantage those 26 others, who in turn would know that there was no majority in the UK for leaving the EU altogether. The British government would already be exposed as having no threat and no leverage in the negotiations that would follow. As a means of setting up a successful negotiation, it would be hard to think of a worse one.
It is important to realise that many of the demands made by eurosceptics would indeed disadvantage the other 26. They want the right to reduce the legal protections afforded to workers in order to cut business costs. Is France or Germany willing to see its domestic production undercut by an off-shore sweatshop? It doesn’t seem likely, does it?
A much more productive strategy would be to open negotiations in advance of a referendum, with the unstated but evident threat that failure to reach a satisfactory deal would be followed by the UK leaving the EU altogether. However much the French and Germans do not want to be undercut, they want Britain to leave even less.
The drawback of this strategy from the point of the eurosceptics is that there is no majority for it. It was the strategy of the Conservative party at the last election, an election that they did not win. The appeal now to a referendum on EU membership as a whole is an attempt to appeal to the voters over the heads of the MPs after the election did not give them the result they want.
A pro-referendum eurosceptic activist said to me at the weekend that confirming British membership of the EU in a referendum would give it greater legitimacy. Possibly, but at the price of reducing the legitimacy of everything else decided by general elections and the House of Commons. It may seem like a good idea to bind the hands of elected politicians, but it would undermine other aspects of our constitutional system in ways that we might rapidly regret.