Napoleon famously wanted to know of his generals whether they possessed that rarest of all the qualities – luck. That commodity is equally precious to politicians. Judging by the latest revelations from Brussels, it appears that David Cameron owns the Westminster equivalent of a heather-bound horseshoe nailed to a leprechaun’s rainbow – if he plays the latest development from Brussels right.
After weeks of wrangling, it now transpires that the Lisbon Treaty is going to have to be put before Parliament for approval again.
As you’d expect from the EU, the reason is complex.
In order to rush the Treaty through in the first place, the current draft failed to sort out the vexed issue of the distribution of seats in the European Parliament. As a result, there are various imbalances in the number of MEPs held by each country – and there are several “ghost” MEPs who currently work in Brussels but don’t actually have any voting powers. To sort this out, the European Parliament is expected to vote this Thursday in favour of holding a new Inter Governmental Conference on 17th and 18th June. At that conference, part of the Lisbon Treaty will be rewritten – requiring full ratification again by the Parliament of each and every EU member state.
It has been widely assumed that the hope of a Lisbon Treaty referendum was dead and buried, but this development brings it back to the fore. David Cameron has always claimed that had he been in Government when the Lisbon Treaty passed through Parliament then he would have held a referendum. Will he now promise to hold a referendum on this new version of the Lisbon Treaty if he is in charge after the General Election?
The public remain overwhelmingly in favour of a referendum, and it would be a vote winner to promise one. Furthermore, it would be an opportunity for Cameron to challenge the Lib Dems and Labour to match his pledge – putting them in a very tight spot indeed.
The threat of a referendum on Lisbon is also the perfect bargaining chip to use against further EU integration, and to secure the repatriation of major powers. Without British approval for this new edition of Lisbon, the European Parliament would be caught in a bizarre limbo, and the Treaty itself would have been felled at the final hurdle.
Grasping this opportunity would be popular, strategically shrewd and – perhaps most importantly of all – honourable to the spirit as well as the letter of the Conservatives’ EU pledges. The failure to grasp it would not only be astonishingly shortsighted; it would be the final brutal betrayal of the pledges made to the British people in a general election – the election of 2005.