The euro crisis poses dilemmas for Labour too

Cameron's EU pain is a gift to the opposition, but how far is Ed Miliband willing to go to destabili

Ed Miliband challenged David Cameron in parliament today on his negotiating position ahead of Friday's European Council summit. The charge was that the prime minister has promised something to his backbenchers that he cannot deliver - a repatriation of powers from Brussels. It was a line calculated to probe Tory eurosceptics' anguish over their leader's failure to capitalise on the opportunity (as they see it) of the eurozone crisis to bring about the longed for renegotiation of the UK's relationship with Brussels.

That was a fairly easy hit for a leader of the opposition. Why, when the prime minister's biggest political bruise is exposed, would he do anything other than punch it? At the moment, Labour doesn't really need to do much on Europe other than find new ways to exploit coalition pain on the subject. And just to be clear, there is a lot of pain out there. Cameron is in an appalling position. He has to go to Brussels and somehow persuade fellow EU leaders that he wholeheartedly endorses their plans to save the euro with a treaty for much closer integration, while pointing out that his party thinks a treaty for much closer integration is an affront to democracy and human dignity, so could he please have a bunch of concessions on issues unrelated to the euro, otherwise he might have to veto the whole thing. If he fails to pull that off, his backbenchers will feel betrayed. And if he manages to get concessions, they probably won't be big enough and his backbenchers will demand a referendum on the new treaty. They can sabotage it in parliament if they don't get one.

It all adds up to a Christmas hamper of opportunities for Labour. But if, as is quite possible, the situation turns still more critical for the single currency and David Cameron, Ed Miliband will also have to start formulating a position on his preferred outcome. At the moment, Labour's EU policy has been spelled out by shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander. He advocates taking a "hard headed view of Britain's interests", which means supporting plans to stabilise the single currency, while making sure single market rules are not skewed against the UK and pushing for reform to boost European trade. The balance of power between Westminster and Brussels is not ideal, Alexander concedes, but now is not the time to fixate on repatriation of powers.

That, as it happens is not so very far removed from the government's official negotiating position. The key difference is that Cameron actually has to deliver it and his raucous party has made it much harder for him (my column in this week's magazine deals with that in more depth). Meanwhile, Ed Balls has taken the lead for Labour in the economic debate around the single currency crisis and struck a slightly more sceptical tone. He has positioned the party firmly against British participation in any EU bailout funds. He also likes to take the credit for helping Gordon Brown keep Britain out of the single currency when Tony Blair wanted to join. Combined, the two positions make for a kind of cautious scepticism-lite - liking British membership of the EU for pragmatic commercial reasons; ready to like it more if the EU were something it is not.

That is a decent enough holding pattern. But it is not clear how it would evolve if Britain's EU relations lurch into a full-scale diplomatic crisis. Would Labour ever support Tory backbench calls for a referendum on a new EU treaty? The natural law of political opportunism dictates that they must denounce whatever deal Cameron does as a failure (which it probably will be), so should the party then join with Tory rebels and try to defeat it in parliament? If eurozone members proceed with their own fiscal consolidation, Britain's relationship with Brussels will, by definition, be changed. Will Labour then support calls for a more substantial renegotiation, including repatriation of powers? And, what it all comes down to in the end: how eurosceptic is Ed Miliband prepared to make Labour in order to make life really difficult for David Cameron and the coalition?

Labour's current position works as a cautious account of Britain's interests under the circumstances. But those circumstances are changing fast.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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What type of Brexit did we vote for? 150,000 Conservative members will decide

As Michael Gove launches his leadership bid, what Leave looks like will be decided by Conservative activists.

Why did 17 million people vote to the leave the European Union, and what did they want? That’s the question that will shape the direction of British politics and economics for the next half-century, perhaps longer.

Vote Leave triumphed in part because they fought a campaign that combined ruthless precision about what the European Union would do – the illusory £350m a week that could be clawed back with a Brexit vote, the imagined 75 million Turks who would rock up to Britain in the days after a Remain vote – with calculated ambiguity about what exit would look like.

Now that ambiguity will be clarified – by just 150,000 people.

 That’s part of why the initial Brexit losses on the stock market have been clawed back – there is still some expectation that we may end up with a more diluted version of a Leave vote than the version offered by Vote Leave. Within the Treasury, the expectation is that the initial “Brexit shock” has been pushed back until the last quarter of the year, when the election of a new Conservative leader will give markets an idea of what to expect.  

Michael Gove, who kicked off his surprise bid today, is running as the “full-fat” version offered by Vote Leave: exit from not just the European Union but from the single market, a cash bounty for Britain’s public services, more investment in science and education. Make Britain great again!

Although my reading of the Conservative parliamentary party is that Gove’s chances of getting to the top two are receding, with Andrea Leadsom the likely beneficiary. She, too, will offer something close to the unadulterated version of exit that Gove is running on. That is the version that is making officials in Whitehall and the Bank of England most nervous, as they expect it means exit on World Trade Organisation terms, followed by lengthy and severe recession.

Elsewhere, both Stephen Crabb and Theresa May, who supported a Remain vote, have kicked off their campaigns with a promise that “Brexit means Brexit” in the words of May, while Crabb has conceded that, in his view, the Leave vote means that Britain will have to take more control of its borders as part of any exit deal. May has made retaining Britain’s single market access a priority, Crabb has not.

On the Labour side, John McDonnell has set out his red lines in a Brexit negotiation, and again remaining in the single market is a red line, alongside access to the European Investment Bank, and the maintenance of “social Europe”. But he, too, has stated that Brexit means the “end of free movement”.

My reading – and indeed the reading within McDonnell’s circle – is that it is the loyalists who are likely to emerge victorious in Labour’s power struggle, although it could yet be under a different leader. (Serious figures in that camp are thinking about whether Clive Lewis might be the solution to the party’s woes.) Even if they don’t, the rebels’ alternate is likely either to be drawn from the party’s Brownite tendency or to have that faction acting as its guarantors, making an end to free movement a near-certainty on the Labour side.

Why does that matter? Well, the emerging consensus on Whitehall is that, provided you were willing to sacrifice the bulk of Britain’s financial services to Frankfurt and Paris, there is a deal to be struck in which Britain remains subject to only three of the four freedoms – free movement of goods, services, capital and people – but retains access to the single market. 

That means that what Brexit actually looks like remains a matter of conjecture, a subject of considerable consternation for British officials. For staff at the Bank of England,  who have to make a judgement call in their August inflation report as to what the impact of an out vote will be. The Office of Budget Responsibility expects that it will be heavily led by the Bank. Britain's short-term economic future will be driven not by elected politicians but by polls of the Conservative membership. A tense few months await. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.