THE BLOG

Hurry Up and Wait: David Cameron and the European Union

27/05/2015 12:36 BST | Updated 27/05/2016 10:59 BST

As the sun rose this morning political pundits swarmed over College Green to give their tuppence worth on today's Queen's Speech. The sense of relief in this crowd was palpable: they had been expecting to be standing in the Spring sunshine for weeks by now, spouting off about protracted coalition negotiations, until David Cameron ruined their fun with his pesky electoral success. The guff of hot air rising over Westminster represents catharsis.

A lot of the heat in the early morning interviews was over the fact there is no British Bill of Rights in the Speech, an absence that has made some tabloids very cross . Personally I am a fan of human rights in general, and the European Convention of Human Rights in particular, which has been in place for more than 60 years and from which it was always likely to be a tad complicated to excuse ourselves. It is also irritating that the ECHR is conflated with the dastardly 'European Project' by certain parts of the media. So I'm glad there has been a delay; maybe, just maybe, the Government might think again.

One area where the Government seems determined to press ahead is over its plan for a referendum over Britain's membership of the European Union. A Bill will appear in the Speech to make this possible, and all the signs are that this will happen well before the 2017 deadline set by the Tories. Speed is welcome: I've been commenting for months about the risks of a protracted referendum campaign , echoing the widespread views of British business. But moving fast opens questions too.

As an example, some of the decisions about the logistics of the referendum the Government has taken may turn out to be premature. Denying the vote to 16 and 17 year olds, and arguably also to foreign residents, when they were able to vote in Scotland looks unfair and perverse. Steamrollering everyone into ensuring that it will be vote 'Yes' to stay in Europe is likely to be unpopular and controversial with some. And moving quickly gives Cameron less room to secure the reforms he needs from Europe to convince the doubters, meaning that he may win the referendum but not gain the legitimacy that such a victory ought to bring. In short, a hasty referendum may well not shut the Eurosceptics up.

There is also a technical issue with timings next year. An obvious time to hold the referendum would be on 5 May 2016. But this is the same day as elections in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London, as well as in local authorities in England. Campaigning for all of these polls will be deeply affected if there is a European referendum underway, and the Scots and Welsh, in particular, are likely to be opposed to bringing all the votes together. That points to a vote later in the year, probably in October. That means an additional 5-6 months of business uncertainty, very likely for no good reason.

So the Prime Minister faces a conundrum. Most right-thinking people want him to get the referendum over with, if we have to have one at all. But moving too fast risks exacerbating, not removing, the uncertainty. Time for David Cameron to take the advice of the Stereophonics: hurry up and wait.