28 January 2016

Parliamentary rules make June referendum ambitious


As ever, David Cameron looks relaxed, even though he is cutting it fine. But behind the scenes his officials, notably Tom Scholar, are dashing for the line, desperate to complete the EU reform negotiations at the February 18-19 European Council.

If they fail, the June referendum could well be off. The reason? The rules, drawn up in two Acts of Parliament and by the Electoral Commission, are cumbersome. They also collide with the rules for the London Mayor election, the Scottish Parliament elections and the Welsh Assembly elections.

Let’s work backwards from favoured date of June 23rd. The statutory 10-week campaign period (during which spending limits apply) must commence on April 14th. By then, the Electoral Commission must have designated the two lead campaign groups. Here is the first problem. There are two on the Brexit side, Vote Leave and Leave.EU, who will fight like ferrets in a sack to be chosen as the lead.

The lead campaign group is a prized status. The winner can spend £7m, receives a grant of £600,000, gets access to the full voting register and can do political broadcasts. Most sensible people believe Vote Leave will be chosen, but Arron Banks and Nigel Farage, the two characters behind Leave.EU, won’t give up without a fight.

Lets say that process takes 3 weeks, which is half the time the Electoral Commission originally said it would take. That brings us back to March 24th. By then, the Government must have ensured that Parliament has passed two statutory instruments, one setting the date, and the other setting out the designation process. These require an “affirmative procedure”, ie a vote in both houses.

Here is the second problem. Usually, Parliamentary business managers allow six weeks for such instruments. But there will be only a four week gap after the February European Council and the date on which a shortened designation process must begin in time for a June 23rd poll. Yet the Scottish Nationalists, and the Democratic Unionists have said they will vote against a June date on the not unreasonable grounds it will overshadow their elections.

In London, Zac Goldsmith’s campaign was quoted as saying that “June does not work for Zac on any level”. His activists would be working on two different campaigns, with different rules, simultaneously. And he might himself be on the opposing side to the Prime Minister. The statutory instrument setting the date will therefore depend on bonkers Labour to pass.

Put all this together and June 23rd remains the most likely date, but the possibility of a delay is much higher than many realise. Not for the first time, David Cameron might put off a difficult decision, not least because once the referendum is over people will start to ask how long he has left in Downing St.

How would a delay be taken? My guess is that the loss of momentum would be seen as benefiting the Brexit camp(s). Financial markets are already jumpy about economic uncertainty and last week (unnoticed in Westminster), a gilts auction almost failed. Markets would not like a delay at all.

George Trefgarne is founder of Boscobel & Partners, a communications firm.