Tories seize on Labour leader’s opposition to vote based on terms set out by David Cameron
Ed Miliband risked alienating some voters, and unnerving sections of his own shadow cabinet, when he stood firm on Wednesday, saying he was opposed to an in-out referendum on the terms proposed by David Cameron.
The Tories seized on his statement, claiming he was against an in-out referendum, but Miliband’s aides said the party only opposed a referendum now.
However, the Conservatives were confident that the Labour leader had made a disastrous political error for which he would pay a price at the next election. Grant Shapps, the Conservative chairman, said: “It’s clear that Labour doesn’t trust the British public to have their say on their country’s future.”
But those senior members of the shadow cabinet that would have preferred a clearer pro-referendum line bit their lips, saying the option remained open. Others claimed Cameron would enjoy a short-term hit, but that the speech would not age well.
Some senior backbenchers such as Keith Vaz, the home affairs select committee chairman and a former Europe minister, openly called for a referendum but surprisingly few Labour voices called for Miliband to follow Cameron.
Those most sympathetic to a referendum forced a shadow cabinet discussion a fortnight ago before Miliband’s appearance on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show to tilt the party’s European policy to make it clearer that Labour would keep its options open on a referendum, and not appear to be advocates of a status quo in Europe.
That view was reflected in Miliband’s recent broadcast interviews and the definitive speech to Chatham House delivered by the shadow foreign secretary, Douglas Alexander.
Among those pushing this stance were the shadow chancellor, Ed Balls, and the head of the party’s policy review, Jon Cruddas, an unabashed advocate of a referendum.
Athough there are different attitudes to Europe inside the Labour leadership, there is little of the visceral hatred found in the Conservative party and the debate is as much about political tactics as anything.
One source said: “It depends how important Europe becomes in the election. As Lord Ashcroft’s polling shows, it is not that important with most voters, but if the issue of whether a party is holding a referendum or not becomes important, then that becomes a problem for us”.
Since the shadow cabinet discussion, Miliband has emphasised that Labour has supported the legal lock passed in the 2011 European Union Act that requires a referendum if there is a transfer of powers from Westminster to Brussels.
Lawyers dispute precisely when that referendum would be triggered by the act, but it is agreed an increase in majority voting at EU level, so reducing national sovereingty, would require a referendum.
If Miliband found himself in a serious political hole on the need to offer a referendum, it would be possible for him – in 12 to 18 months’ time – to say events in Europe show there will be a transfer of sovereignty and so a referendum is required. Miliband would be seen to be awkwardly following the lead of Cameron, but that is not politically disastrous.
The current position has allowed most of the big pro European voices – Miliband, Alexander, Balls, Tony Blair and Lord Mandelson – to unite around the argument that it is damaging to the British economic interest to put a five-year question mark over UK’s continued membership of the single market.
Blair said on Wednesday: “I think it’s a huge worry in circumstances where you put on the agenda the prospect of Britain leaving. Why would we do that? We don’t yet know what we are proposing or what we can get negotiated. We don’t yet know what the rest of Europe is going to propose. I don’t believe in a referendum unless it’s necessary to do it. This referendum will happen in four or five years’ time.”
He said that, as a negotiating tactic, “it reminds me a bit of the Mel Brooks comedy Blazing Saddles where the sheriff says at one point during it – holds a gun to his own head and says, ‘If you don’t do what I want, I’ll blow my brains out;’ you know, you want to watch that one of the 26 [other EU members] don’t just say, ‘Well okay, go ahead.’
Alexander questioned Cameron’s timing and motive, pointing out: “There are no changes being considered in the eurozone that impact on British sovereignty and, if there are any changes that lead to a transfer of power from Britain to Brussels, then according to the law we already have on the statute book that would automatically trigger a referendum”.
He said he supported changes to the EU but added: “The idea that you put a gun to the head of your EU partners and stand in the departure lounge shouting at 26 other members of European union as the way to get those changes does not make sense to me”.
Mandelson, who is one of many pointing out Europe can be a building block to restoring Labour’s relationship with business, said Cameron’s speech was “about pleasing a party audience and the people who he used to call the fruitcakes and headbangers”.
Miliband’s stance has the additional benefit of almost identical to that of Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, so at least giving both parties some mutual political cover.
Clegg said: “The priority of the Liberal Democrats is to build a stronger economy in a fairer society. Now, that job is made all the harder if we have years of grinding uncertainty because of an ill-defined, protracted renegotiation of Britain’s status within the European Union.
“My priority remains, and will always remain: yes, reform in Europe; yes, a referendum where the circumstances are right, as we’ve set out in law; but, above and beyond anything else, promoting growth and jobs”.
The significance of the similarity of the two leader’s stance is not lost on those that peer forward to the prospect of a hung parliament. If the voters give him a genuine choice of parties in 2015, is Clegg more likely to join forces with Cameron with his ambitious plan to negotiate European optouts until November 2017 or with Miliband ?