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Cameron's Lisbon problem

Gavin Hewitt | 11:09 UK time, Thursday, 1 October 2009

Dublin: Sometime on Saturday morning there will be the first indications of how Ireland has voted in its second referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. Political Europe will be on the edge of its seat - none more so than the Conservative leader, David Cameron. David Cameron

The expectation here in Dublin is that the "Yes" campaign will win, although some claim that on the doorsteps the "undecideds" are leaning towards voting "No".

If Ireland votes "Yes" almost immediately the Tories will face difficult questions. Their current position is that if they get into power they will hold a referendum if the treaty has not been ratified by all 27 EU members. If it has been ratified, all they have said so far - and rather cryptically - is that they would "not let matters rest".

Now Ireland is not alone in not having ratified the treaty. Neither has Poland nor the Czech Republic. If the Irish vote "Yes" a Polish signature is likely to follow shortly after.

The position in the Czech Republic is more complicated. In recent days a group of senators close to President Vaclav Klaus have filed a legal challenge with their constitutional court. The basis of their case is that the Lisbon Treaty could form the legal foundation for the creation of a European superstate and that would violate the Czech constitution. A Fine Gael politician's office defaced with No posters in Ennis, Ireland

Previous complaints to the court have been thrown out, but this one may take longer to consider. Some say it could take between three to six months before the court rules. Others say there will be a decision before the end of the year. Certainly Prague will come under relentless pressure from other EU countries to decide quickly.

What is happening in the Czech Republic is central to how David Cameron is likely to respond to an Irish "Yes". He will be asked whether the Conservatives still intend to hold a referendum. In fact he was asked that on Wednesday this week. The Czechs buy him time to avoid defining precisely where he stands. "If this treaty is still alive," he said, "if it is still being discussed and debated anywhere in the EU then we will give you that referendum, we will name the date during the election campaign. We'll hold that referendum straight away and I will lead the campaign for a 'No'." That is clear as far as it goes.

What he did not promise was to hold a referendum if the treaty had already been ratified across the EU. All he would say was that if the three remaining countries have ratified the treaty then "a new set of circumstances apply and I will address that at the time". Some in his party may see that as preparing the ground to back away from a referendum.

So back to the questions that may flow from Saturday's verdict. It is quite possible that at next week's conference the Tory leader will come under pressure from both sides of the argument. Some within the party believe that if the Irish vote "Yes" it is time to accept reality and that the Tory leader should come out and say boldly "yes we have to live with Lisbon". Others will be pushing him to hold a referendum even if it has been ratified. David Cameron will have to tread carefully to avoid stirring up within the party the old arguments over Europe. This is where the Czechs give him valuable time and wriggle room.

To hold a referendum after it has been ratified across the EU carries big political risks. The row with the rest of Europe will be immense. Some will say that a "No" vote in those circumstances would be a vote to leave the EU. But here's the question: Would a new prime minister taking office with a vast budget deficit, and with a commitment to mend "broken Britain" spend precious political capital and energy on a ferocious row with the likes of Merkel and Sarkozy?

Some may argue that the Tories are keeping half an eye on those voters who turned out for the UK Independence Party (UKIP) at the European elections. Keeping the idea of a referendum alive may tempt them into the Tory camp.

There is another possible verdict on Saturday: that Ireland votes "No". In that event the Lisbon Treaty is effectively dead. As the Irish prime minister accepted on Wednesday, you can't hold a third referendum. The EU will be in crisis, although it will continue to function on the basis of the Nice Treaty. For David Cameron and the Tories there will be a new landscape and, for a period, the awkward questions subside.

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