You almost have to feel sorry for Gordon Brown, because Tony Blair has stitched him up like a kipper. When the former PM was off negotiating the latest European Treaty the Brown camp was clearly worried, hence the muttered threats at the time that a bad deal might be repudiated when the new man came in. Then Blair came back trumpeting that his Red Lines had been held and that the new agreement was a totally different animal from the previous failed constitution. So, Brown got with the programme and announced that there was no need for a referendum, his team probably sighing with relief at dodging the political bullet. Then things started to unravel, with a series of European leaders stating that the new treaty was in fact the old constitution in a different dust jacket. Suddenly, this suggestion ceased to be the province of the Eurosceptic usual suspects and became the mainstream view. Then the Conservative Party decided to unequivocally campaign for a referendum regardless of David Cameron’s efforts to reposition the Party to be less strident on Europe. Now major trade unions and dozens of Labour MPs have also given their support to the referendum campaign, and the polls have the public at about 80% in support. Brown’s assertion that this is a matter for parliament alone looks increasingly difficult to defend, and this issue will not go away as the whole protracted process of ratifying a European treaty unfolds.
Now some newspapers are suggesting that the best thing to do would be to have an election, that Brown should use his lift in the polls to put the matter to the country along with the fate of his government. Well, I don’t think that this is good advice. Brown’s ‘bounce’ appears to be waning, and the last few weeks have not been good for the government in political terms. More importantly, an election with Europe as the main issue would unite the Right and help the Conservatives get the vote out.
The fact is that Blair’s European chalice was as poisoned as Brown feared. There is, however, one way to avoid having to drink from it: hold a referendum.