Saturday, January 02, 2016

Reading the forecasts for 2016

I have been reading a number of projections of what various people think will happen in 2016, some of whom have also had the guts to review what they predicted for 2015 against how things turned out.

An optimistic view of the world comes from Dan Hannan MEP

I think he's right on much of this, but I will come back to his point 15 and the issue of whether the EU referendum will take place in 2016.

Alistair Meeks at Political Betting makes his projections for 2016

And reviews what he was right and wrong about a year ago when making predictions for 2015:

Tim Montgomerie on what he thought would happen in 2015 against what did, apparently through the prism of what he now thinks the government is planning for 2016:

Most of the things all these pundits are saying make sense but there is one issue on which they all appear to be confusing what the government would like to do with the practicalities of what is possible.

Yes, I think the government would like to get the referendum out of the way in 2016, but it is far higher on their agenda to

1) Get the best deal they can from Europe first, and
2) Absolutely minimise the number of genuine arguments either "leave" or "remain" can make that the referendum was not fair.

The latter point means there is no question of ignoring any Electoral Commission recommendations, such as the one that at least six months' notice must be given for the referendum. Nor is the referendum likely to be held in the winter months - this government does usually learn from it's mistakes and will not want a repeat of the dreadful turnout in the last major November poll, the initial election of Police and Crime Commissioners.

So the date predicted by Tim Montgomerie for the Referendum in the 31st December article linked to above - June 2016 - became impossible on the day that article appeared.

If the government were to succeed in getting a deal from the European Council by the end of February - which is the declared target date - then a referendum in September or October 2016 would be possible. Hence I would not bet my shirt against the poll on Britain's EU membership taking place in one of those months.

If, however, the negotiations prove difficult enough for that date to slip - and deadlines to complete negotiations in Europe frequently do slip, usually leading to a deal at the very last moment possible - the government would have to call the referendum when they have not yet got a deal, break the Electoral Commission recommendation to give at least six months' notice. or slip the referendum to Spring 2017.

In my opinion, either calling the referendum before we know what deal is on offer, or breaking the Electoral Commission recommendation, would be grossly irresponsible from the viewpoint of what is best for the country and utterly stupid from the government's own selfish interests. David Cameron has been extremely careful not to say anything which commits him to an earlier date than that enshrined in the referendum legislation, e.g. that it has to be held before the end of 2017.

One of DC's strengths as a politician is the willingness to play the long game, and never to get boxed into a position which forces him to start a battle before the point when he has the best chance to win it. The fact that he would prefer to get the referendum out of the way in 2016 will not make him rash enough to go for it before he has a deal he can sell or in a manner which allows all his enemies to make the justified charge that he is riding rough-shod over the electoral commission's advice.

Cameron will, of course, be accused whatever he does of having rigged the referendum by whoever loses it and by the headbanger elements of the "leave" campaign even if they win. But he will bend over backwards - in my opinion, has already done so - to minimise the number of valid grounds either side has for such criticism.

If the EU negotiations go unexpectedly smoothly, we may yet see a referendum in September this year. But if there is an initial deadlock and the timetable slips - and let's face it, that should hardly be a surprise if it happens - then we are looking at a referendum date in 2017.

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