The referendum campaigners’ last best hope has just vanished. Not that those who want a referendum on the European Reform Treaty will shut up shop and go home. Far from it. The campaign will intensify and reach something of a peak over the next few weeks. And perhaps that is at least one reason why their moment may have passed.
I’m writing of course about Gordon Brown’s decision not to hold an autumn election. Had he decided to “bring it on” there was a slim chance that he might just have promised a referendum to remove the subject from an election. Some politicians in Britain do believe in referendums for their own sake. Mr Brown is not one of them, and as a rule of thumb prime ministers in the UK only offer referendums to remove an issue from an election, or to solve internal party strife. Brown didn’t want a referendum and I personally didn’t think he would be pushed. But it was just possible. Now I can see no reason why he would grant one.
The election would have been fought against the background of a European Union summit that would have been held two weeks before polling day. It would have been a real headache for Mr Brown. Would he go to Lisbon and make a fuss that most would realise was rather drummed up for domestic reasons? Would he snub an important summit on grounds of the election, laying himself open to charges he was ignoring vital British interests? Would he have gone and agreed to the treaty and laid himself open to the wrath of the Sun and the Telegraph? It would be inevitable that for a few days at least Europe would be at the top of the election agenda. And no-one, not the cleverest strategist, politician or journalist, can really guess how an issue would play after that. It could just fade and be replaced by a row about taxation or health. But it could run, on and off, right up to polling day, poisoning the atmosphere.
The Conservatives were going to make Europe an election issue. One source told me it would be among their top five or six issues. William Hague is scarred by the failure of his “Save the Pound” election and would have been cautious. But it would be easy to raise the issue of trust and easy to sum up several complex arguments about the treaty as “He’s giving more power to Brussels”. It occurred to me that perhaps this was an important factor in not holding an election. It wouldn’t of course be the only one, or main one, but it would have been part of the mixture that could have turned toxic for the Prime Minister. I see Jackie Ashley in the Guardian suggests not only the Murdoch press but the man himself may have played a vital role in shaping Mr Brown's decision.
The whole affair will mean that we will know even less in the future about the decision-making process in government. You just can’t tell the children that you might decide something. They need certainty when mummy and daddy have had their private discussions. The whole affair shows how little room politicians have to think. They can’t be allowed to semi-publicly mull over a decision.
There is little doubt that Brown’s most senior lieutenants were talking up the idea of an early election and getting journalists to write it up. But we hacks are obsessed by dates. One reason: journalism is about facts, making the unknown known. But elections also directly effect our lives, with weeks of intense work, plans cancelled, weekends put to one side, and so when they are is a matter of intense personal interest.
But it is also true that the media needs this narrative. For some reason they fell for the line that this stunningly cunning politician would be a low-octane charisma-less failure as PM. When he wasn’t, they were more impressed by the image shift than they should have been. So they need a reason to declare the honeymoon over. This is it. I rather think it will have put Mr Brown off speculation about votes in general, and that goes for a referendum too.