UK Politics

EU referendum delay will delight eurosceptics

EU flag

Ministers have decided not to stage the EU referendum as soon as next May after a push by Downing Street advisers to hold the poll quickly, BBC Newsnight has learnt.

A decision was taken within Whitehall today not to rush the referendum. Sources also told Newsnight it was unlikely the poll would be held quickly.

The move will delight eurosceptic MPs who had feared a rush to an early poll could favour the move to keep Britain in Europe.

Legislation passing through the Commons says the referendum must be held by the end of 2017, but there had been a move among the Prime Minister's team to bring the poll forward.

Downing Street advisers argued that staging the referendum poll on the same day as next year's local and mayoral elections could drive up turnout for the referendum among some of Britain's most pro-European regions.

They also wanted the prime minister to stage an early referendum to allow the Conservative party to capitalise on goodwill after winning its first majority in 23 years.

They feared leaving it any later would see the referendum turn into a referendum on a mid-term government, something which is often unpopular.

Senior Tory sources also feared staging a referendum as late as 2017 would clash with the French and German elections that year, making genuine progress in talks difficult.

However it is thought the Chancellor, George Osborne, was wary of moving to stage the referendum too soon.

Eurosceptic MPs were dismayed at the idea, believing the prime minister was trying to rush the process.

Opposition politicians, including the SNP's foreign affairs spokesman Alex Salmond, argued that such an important decision should not be held on the same day as other elections.

At the G7 conference in Germany last week the prime minister ridiculed this idea. He told reporters: "I think the British public are quite capable of going to a polling booth and making two important decisions rather than just one".