An "iron-clad" referendum guarantee ... so would you believe him twice?

Czech President Vaclav Klaus has now signed the Lisbon Treaty, meaning that all member states have completed the ratification process. In these circumstances David Cameron has now said that the Tories will not call a referendum on the Treaty.

This post isn't about the rights and wrongs of that decision, but only to note that some sections of the Tory Party (and others) feel very strongly that David Cameron has broken the promise that he gave. Here is a report from the Telegraph:

David Cameron to tell voters: no vote on Lisbon Treaty

The Tory party leader’s admission, which could come as early as Tuesday, will bring accusations that he has broken clear promises to grant a popular vote on the treaty.

Mr Cameron gave voters an “iron-clad” promise in 2007 that a Conservative government would hold a popular vote on Lisbon.

... several other [Tory MPs] said they still expect Mr Cameron to honour his “iron-clad” promise and hold a referendum on the treaty regardless.

Bill Cash, another leading Eurosceptic MP, said: “We need a full referendum on Lisbon as we were promised. No ifs or buts. This is about the Government of the UK operating in line with the democratic wishes of the electorate.”

Barry Legg, of the sceptic Bruges Group, said: “David Cameron needs to come clean with the British people: why is he breaking his pledge to hold a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty? How can David Cameron claim he’ll fight to repatriate powers from Brussels when he won’t even fight to implement his own past words?

Opponents of the treaty from other parties also attacked Mr Cameron.

Nigel Farage, the UK Independence Party leader, said: "We can now see how gutless and dishonest the Conservative Party has been about their intentions on a referendum.”

Ian Davidson, a Labour MP who opposes the treaty said: “Those who capitulate and change their position once it is ratified betray the interests of the British people.”

Daily Telegraph, 2 November 2009

Over the past few months I have to admit to being surprised at a general feeling—expressed by a number of senior politicians and commentators—that David Cameron would be certain to let Wales have a referendum on primary lawmaking powers. One of the most common words has been that it would be "inconceivable" for him to refuse the referendum if the Assembly were to ask for it.

The first thing to note is that the Tories have not made that promise to Wales. The official position is that they will keep their powder dry until after the All Wales Convention has reported. Yet they have, rather adroitly, allowed a situation to develop in which a good number of people are optimistic that they will say Yes.

But the second point is that even if they were to make that promise, there is absolutely no guarantee that the Tories will stick to their word. If they break one "iron-clad" guarantee, why wouldn't they break another?


Now I fully understand that there are very cogent reasons for not having a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty now. But think, might that not be equally true (in the minds of those who do not want it, that is) of the Welsh referendum? Off the top of my head, here are some reasons Cameron might give for changing his mind at some future date after having given us a similar "iron-clad" guarantee:

• We're still not out of the financial crisis

• There's a new financial crisis

• The situation in Scotland has changed, and that has had knock on effects that no-one could reasonably have foreseen

• We now intend to introduce a comprehensive review of the asymmetrical nature of devolution, particularly with respect to England ... so we think it unwise to have a Welsh referendum until that has been concluded

• We intend to devolve more responsibility to the Assembly (e.g. prisons) so we want to wrap this into a new referendum

• We want to introduce a threshold (remember 1979)

• We think the wording of the referendum should be put in different terms

• We can't have a referendum while people in the Valleys are out on the streets, protesting over public spending cuts (that's designed to resonate with the more radical wing of the Labour movement ... and Leanne Wood, not that she needs convincing!)

You get the picture. If the Tories want to find a reason to delay the referendum, it won't be too difficult to think of one. They can simply claim that circumstances have changed.


I'll repeat what I've said before. As things stand at present, getting our referendum depends entirely on Labour. We need Labour AMs to get the two-thirds majority in the Senedd, we need Labour's majority in the Commons to get it through Westminster. After the General election, there is a possibility (please bear in mind that I'm primarily trying to convince those in the Labour Party) that Labour will no longer have that majority in the Commons after May.

A number of people in Labour—including Carwyn Jones and Huw Lewis—seem to be saying that it is a decision to be made only after the result of that election is known. My point is that by then it will be too late. We will still get the two-thirds majority in the Senedd, but there is no guarantee that the Tories, if they win, will let us have it.

I would go further and repeat that there are very good reasons why the Tories would not let us have it. As things stand at present, the Secretary of State for Wales has complete control over whether an LCO even gets laid before Parliament. S/he then continues to influence every stage of the process. It is very likely that a Tory SoSW will want to see the text of any proposed Measure as part of the LCO process ... as we saw with Cheryl Gillan over the Welsh Language LCO. Politics is about power, so why would the Tories want to relinquish that power? It is in their interests to hold that "lever of power" while they are in power at Westminster, just as it has been in Labour's interests to hold that lever while they have been in power.

It goes without saying that no-one in Labour is going to trust the Tories one inch further than they can throw them. So isn't it a little naïve to rely on Cameron to allow a referendum that could transfer that degree of power from the Tories in Westminster to a Senedd in which Labour are, and are quite likely to remain, the largest party?

Sure, the Tories will make all the right noises about respecting the Assembly, but isn't it in their interests to lull you into what might be a false sense of comfort? If they can convince you that you don't have to make a decision, they know that the decision will fall to them instead.


I don't think the situation has been helped by suggestions that the referendum itself can, or should, be held in the next few months. In fact I suspect that the suggestion has been floated in order to introduce some friction to the debate: specifically, to divide Labour and Plaid Cymru.

The name of the game is to stick to the game plan.

The commitment is to hold a referendum on or before May 2011. Huw Lewis' "only one election at a time" is perfectly right in respect to the upcoming General election. It would be complete madness to fight it in the next few months, not least because the media will be concentrating on the increasingly-heated election battle. Wales would not get a look-in, so the referendum issues would not be properly aired or discussed.

But it is something entirely different to get the referendum through its approval stages in Cardiff and London now, but to set a date for the referendum itself which is well after the General election is over. Any time between Autumn 2010 and Spring 2011 is fine.


There's only one problem: that Labour must take the risk of setting a date for the referendum now, while they are still in control of the process. No matter how optimistic Labour might be about some great sea-change in public opinion carrying them to a fourth term at Westminster, there is no guarantee that it will happen ... and certainly no "cast-iron" guarantee.

Labour cannot afford to take the risk. They need to make a decision about the referendum while power remains in their hands.

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Unknown said...

I agree with Huw Lewis 'One election at a time' approach. Get the first Senedd vote out of the way, and then push it through Westminster before a general election. Then by the time it comes back to the Senedd, there should be a Conservative government in Westmister which will focus the minds of the Labour doubters.

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