Cameron's EU referendum pledge leaves Labour in a difficult position

If Miliband matches Cameron's referendum offer, he will look weak. If he doesn't, he will look undemocratic. Which will he choose?

David Cameron's speech on the EU was driven not by policy but by politics. Six months ago, the Prime Minister had no intention of promising an in/out referendum on the EU but his recalcitrant backbenchers and an insurgent UKIP forced him into a dramatic reverse ferret. His address, then, was less about outlining a sophisticated vision for the future of the EU (one that Cameron's fantasy of an à la carte Europe, in which Britain picks and chooses which rules it obeys, does not represent) but simply about getting him through the 2015 general election. 

On that limited basis, the speech may prove to be a success. The early reaction from eurosceptic MPs, such as Douglas Carswell, suggests that it will help to unify a Conservative Party that has been badly divided over the EU since the election. 

The biggest long-term problem for Cameron remains that having promised a "fundamental change" in Britain’s relationship with the EU, he will struggle to persuade the eurosceptics in his party that it is in our interests to remain a member if he fails to deliver. The result would be the worst Tory split for decades as some cabinet ministers, such as Iain Duncan Smith and Owen Paterson, argued for an 'out' vote, while others argued for an 'in' vote. But that, if Cameron wins a majority at the general election (and it remains a very large 'if'), is not an issue he will have to face until long after 2015. 

For now, the Prime Minister enjoys the distinction of being the only party leader to have promised to give the electorate a vote over the EU at some point in the near future. This leaves Labour and the Liberal Democrats, both of whom have argued that Cameron's pledge is a rash one, in a difficult position. If they seek they match his offer at some point before 2015 (most likely in the form of a straight in/out vote, rather than one tied to renegotiation), they will look weak; following, not leading. If they do not, they will stand accused of denying the British people a say over an institution that has changed dramatically in the 38 years since the first and only EU referendum in 1975. Will Miliband and Clegg allow Cameron to be the only leader to stand up at the TV debates in 2015 and promise a referendum on the EU? Almost certainly not, which is why both must now work out how to climb down in the most graceful and painless way possible. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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PMQs review: Theresa May shows how her confidence has grown

After her Brexit speech, the PM declared of Jeremy Corbyn: "I've got a plan - he doesn't have a clue". 

The woman derided as “Theresa Maybe” believes she has neutralised that charge. Following her Brexit speech, Theresa May cut a far more confident figure at today's PMQs. Jeremy Corbyn inevitably devoted all six of his questions to Europe but failed to land a definitive blow.

He began by denouncing May for “sidelining parliament” at the very moment the UK was supposedly reclaiming sovereignty (though he yesterday praised her for guaranteeing MPs would get a vote). “It’s not so much the Iron Lady as the irony lady,” he quipped. But May, who has sometimes faltered against Corbyn, had a ready retort. The Labour leader, she noted, had denounced the government for planning to leave the single market while simultaneously seeking “access” to it. Yet “access”, she went on, was precisely what Corbyn had demanded (seemingly having confused it with full membership). "I've got a plan - he doesn't have a clue,” she declared.

When Corbyn recalled May’s economic warnings during the referendum (“Does she now disagree with herself?”), the PM was able to reply: “I said if we voted to leave the EU the sky would not fall in and look at what has happened to our economic situation since we voted to leave the EU”.

Corbyn’s subsequent question on whether May would pay for single market access was less wounding than it might have been because she has consistently refused to rule out budget contributions (though yesterday emphasised that the days of “vast” payments were over).

When the Labour leader ended by rightly hailing the contribution immigrants made to public services (“The real pressure on public services comes from a government that slashed billions”), May took full opportunity of the chance to have the last word, launching a full-frontal attack on his leadership and a defence of hers. “There is indeed a difference - when I look at the issue of Brexit or any other issues like the NHS or social care, I consider the issue, I set out my plan and I stick to it. It's called leadership, he should try it some time.”

For May, life will soon get harder. Once Article 50 is triggered, it is the EU 27, not the UK, that will take back control (the withdrawal agreement must be approved by at least 72 per cent of member states). With MPs now guaranteed a vote on the final outcome, parliament will also reassert itself. But for now, May can reflect with satisfaction on her strengthened position.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.