The next week will present a crucial test to David Cameron and the Conservative Party. The issue will be one that has bitterly divided the Tory Party for the last twenty years: Europe.
Now that the Irish have voted so clearly to ratify the Lisbon Treaty, the pressure will be on for the Tories to clarify their position. As I understand it, this is their evolving position. Two years ago, they were unequivocal: there would be a referendum and the Conservatives would campaign for a “No” vote. Now, the position is more “nuanced”: if after the General Election (and if by some mischance they find themselves in Government) and if the Lisbon Treaty has not by then been ratified by all EU member states, then a Conservative Government would “suspend” the UK ratification, call a referendum and campaign for a “No” vote.
And if the Treaty has been ratified by every EU member state? Well that’s the nuanced bit. Essentially it boils down to accepting the Lisbon Treaty as fact, but having a bit of a whinge about it.
Of course, even the “easy” bit is actually quite complicated. Now that Ireland has voted. There are only two member states that have not yet completed the ratification process. In both of those instances, their Parliaments have voted to ratify. The Tories seem to be pinning their hopes on the President of the Czech Republic stalling long enough to give them a chance to “suspend” the UK ratification.
But what does “suspend” mean? UK ratification is a fact. It is an Act of Parliament that has received the Royal Assent. No Prime Minister has the power to “suspend” an Act of Parliament. A new Act of Parliament would be required to undo the ratification. More legislation would then be required to enable there to be a referendum. It would all take at least a year – probably more. And what’s going to happen while all of this is going on? The rest of Europe is not going to sit still. Even the President of the Czech Republic is not envisaging holding up ratification beyond next June (by which time even with a May General Election the British Parliament will only just be sworn in …).
So what are the options for David Cameron? If he wants to show real leadership, he should stop nuancing.
He has two options: either he should tell his Party Conference this week that the Lisbon Treaty is now a fact (and will be past the point of no return by the time of a General Election) or he should admit that the Conservatives want to withdraw from the European Union (with all the dire economic consequences that that would bring) and that the Tory manifesto will commit to calling a referedum to do just that.
That’s why the poll of Conservative Party members in ConservativeHome is so significant. Only 16% of Tory Party members are in favour of accepting ratification of the Lisbon Treaty as a fact. (Iain Dale rather innocently seems to think that this finding is such dynamite that it should have been suppressed.) The real reason this poll has been released now (and Tim Montgomerie has acknowledged in a comment to Iain Dale that it would have been suppressed nearer the time of a General Election) is to PREVENT David Cameron showing that leadership. There was clearly a fear that he was going to tell the Party that it had to accept Lisbon and the publication of the poll was intended to preempt that.
The effect is to raise the stakes. If David Cameron were to go ahead and say to his Party Conference, despite the ConservativeHome poll, that the Tories will now accept the Lisbon Treaty, he would be showing some real and genuine leadership.
So has he got the cojones? We’ll see. But don’t hold your breath.