THE BLOG

With a Referendum on the Cards Soon, Cameron Might Not Have Much Time to Prevent Impending Brexit

02/10/2015 17:43 BST | Updated 02/10/2016 10:12 BST

As the Conservative Party gathers in Manchester for their first autumn conference as a majority government in a generation, there is one issue dominating the agenda. A brief glance at the conference programme reveals no fewer than 28 fringe events focusing on Britain's membership of the European Union. Eurosceptic delegates will be spoilt for choice, faced with simultaneous events as enticing as "Is Tech Better Off Out of the EU?" and "The Policy factor! How can Cameron win in Europe?".

They are not alone in their obsession: the political commentariat is turning its attention increasingly towards the looming EU referendum. Recent figures suggest deep divisions between the Prime Minister and his parliamentary colleagues, with the number firmly in favour or leaning towards leaving the EU outnumbering those who vocally support it.

And after a summer of Labour's 'elder statesmen' gracing our airwaves to warn against Jeremy Corbyn, now is the Tories' turn to revel in nostalgia. On Thursday, the former Chancellor of the Exchequer Lord Lawson was announced as the President of Conservatives for Britain - a rival to the UKIP-backed Leave.EU campaign.

Some hoping for an 'out' win might have desired a fresher face to lead the campaign, but Lawson is respected by many as an intellectual heavyweight with Thatcherite economic credentials. He has strong appeal for the many Conservative members who remain wistful for the pre-modernised days of the Party. And, as a relative latecomer to view that Britain would be better off outside of the union, from his French holiday home, Lawson will be able to articulate the case better than those who have always abhorred any transfer of power to Brussels.

He may have plenty of time yet to make that case. The referendum timeline still looks uncertain: the government has ruled out a poll on the same day as the local elections next May, and the EU Referendum Bill - which makes provisions for the Government to set a date for the vote - should receive Royal Assent by early 2016. A lot will depend on the progress made on renegotiation by the Prime Minister and his Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond.

Hammond has indicated that he hopes to have finalised these discussions - focusing on competitiveness, sovereignty, economic governance and access to social security - by the end of 2016. But the likely outcome may well be clear by the end of this year. As the briefing published by ICG (Insight Consulting Group) sets out, the European Council meeting on 17 and 18 December is widely seen as the key opportunity for the Prime Minister to persuade fellow leaders of the case for his reforms.

While the Prime Minister addresses the party faithful in Manchester on Wednesday, Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande will be undertaking their own charm offensive with a joint address to the European Parliament in Strasbourg. The Prime Minister is under pressure to have the issue wrapped up before the French Elections in May 2017 and the German Elections in September 2017.

For the electorate, there is a chance that this is all too little, too late. Support for EU membership seems to be waning, dropping from an all-time-high of 61% in June to just 45% in an ICM poll published on Thursday. The weakening of Labour's position under Corbyn may be doing damage to Britain's future in Europe. But the last six months have affirmed that political polling is far from an exact science. Watch this space.