If politics and religion don’t mix, then holding a vote on a major sporting occasion is even more of a taboo.
Hence the Euro 2016 soccer championships in France may have a lot to do with the fact that June 23 is starting to look like the preferred date for Prime Minister David Cameron’s planned referendum on whether the U.K. should stay in the European Union or leave.
Britain traditionally votes on a Thursday, but there are reasons to rule out the four other possible dates for a referendum in June, assuming Cameron can seal a deal on the terms of the U.K.’s EU membership with fellow leaders next month. June 16, for example, sees the England soccer team playing Wales in the afternoon -- a match that will mean millions of potential voters are glued to the television -- with Northern Ireland taking to the pitch that evening. There are no such sporting distractions a week later.
“Cameron can’t just pick any date he wants,” Philip Cowley, professor of politics at Queen Mary, University of London, said in an interview. “He has to consider all sorts of things that have nothing to do with politics, especially football matches.”
Both Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond and David Mundell, the U.K. cabinet minister responsible for Scotland, have spoken of the possibility of a June vote in recent weeks. The London-based Times newspaper and the BBC cited unnamed government officials Tuesday as saying that preparations were being made for June 23. Cameron’s office says no decision has been taken, and the prime minister has said several times in recent days that he’s in “no hurry” to call the vote.
Ministers have said the government needs 16 weeks between a deal and a referendum: Six weeks are required to get legislation setting the date through Parliament before a 10-week campaign. With Cameron saying he’s hoping for an agreement at the Feb. 18-19 EU summit in Brussels, that makes the timetable uncomfortably tight for possible voting dates on June 2 and June 9.
Those first two Thursdays also risk campaign overload, with too much of an overlap between the campaign for the referendum and those for the Scottish Parliament and London mayoral elections on May 5. There are a range of other elections across the U.K. on that date too.
Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon repeated on Sunday that it “would be a mistake” to hold a referendum in June at all.
“I think to have a referendum campaign starting in parallel would be disrespectful to those important elections” in Scotland and elsewhere, she told the BBC. “It would be better for David Cameron, if he does get a deal at the February European Council, to leave more time between that deal and the point of decision.”
June 23 would provide for a seven-week period between the Scottish election and the referendum, going some way to appeasing Sturgeon’s objections.
But Cameron can’t delay much beyond that if he’s to hold a vote before September. There’s a Euro 2016 quarter-final scheduled for July 30 and a semi-final on July 6. And once into July, schools start their summer vacation periods. That means EU-inclined parents with children might be abroad when voting takes place -- something the prime minister will want to avoid. Schools in England tend to close in mid- to late July, but it’s even earlier in Scotland, where the last day of school in the biggest city, Glasgow, is June 24.
Without being specific about a date, Hammond warned Tuesday that the timing might slip if there’s no deal at the February summit. Ireland is the only one of the other 27 EU countries for which the U.K. negotiations are the priority right now, he told a House of Lords committee.
“It would be unwise of us to try to push our agenda ahead of other things that other member states will see as pressingly urgent,” Hammond said.
“If we get a deal done in February, it will be possible to hold a referendum in June,” he told the panel. “If the deal is not done in February, that would become much more difficult; certainly if it’s not done in March it would become impossible.”
Even June 23 isn’t perfect for the vote. That’s also the first day of a two-day EU summit in Brussels, meaning the prime minister may be out of the country as the ballots from his referendum are being counted. Still, it would mean Cameron could either receive the congratulations or commiseration of his fellow EU leaders as the results come in.