Europe is still a Tory obsession. Labour should leave them to it

The next election will be decided by the economy, not by which party is the most eurosceptic.

David Cameron had a good day on Wednesday. After giving a convincing and impressive sounding speech that made him sound pragmatic and engaged with reforming the EU but also dangled the promise of an 'in/out' referendum within the next five years, he offered more than enough to pacify both the pro and anti-European wings of his party. In just over 25 minutes, he apparently managed what no Conservative leader could do in 25 years.                                                                                                                                                                                           
The Prime Minister will continue to get a good press and Labour, whose poll lead over the Tories had already narrowed to 5 points according to the latest ICM survey, will take some flak for not matching Cameron's promise of a referendum. Labour's handful of eurosceptics, and opportunist pundits who never think more than a few weeks ahead, will accuse Ed Miliband of dropping the ball.
But Miliband is wise to be cautious. The next election is a political lifetime away - 2017 is further still. If the wind changes decisively in the two and a half years between now and the 2015 election, there is plenty of time to perform a U-turn and back a public vote. As Cameron found to his cost after he promised and then reneged on a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, there is no value in putting yourself at the mercy of uncontrollable events. 
In any case, jumping on the referendum bandwagon now would smack of the cynicism that it is. Labour cannot really expect people to buy into the pretence that it is more eurosceptic than the Tories.
The eruption of Tory support for their leader will be disconcerting for the Labour and Lib Dem benches, but we've been here before. The last time Cameron got such rapturous support from his party was his non-veto of the fiscal compact in December 2011. Conservative MPs lined up to praise their leader for standing up to Merkel and Sarkozy before realising that Cameron hadn't actually prevented anything.
Besides, it's easy to forget that, only a few days ago, Conservatives were at daggers drawn with each other over what Cameron should and shouldn't say. The speech has applied plenty of sticking-plaster but ensured that the next four years will be dominated by the European obsession that has afflicted the Tory party for the last twenty years. The Conservative Party's own European unity will cease as soon as the negotiations start. There's no need for Labour to start intruding into their private grief.
The other point is to look at who some of the most vocal Tory supporters of the speech are: Bill Cash, Douglas Carswell and Bernard Jenkin, all of whom will only vote for Britain to leave the EU. Around 100 Tory MPs would campaign for a 'no' vote regardless of what Cameron can secure from the rest of Europe. 
Cameron is more likely to have created a trap for himself, rather than for Labour. The notion that politicians in Berlin, Paris, Rome and elsewhere are going to offer a package of opt-outs and exemptions to satisfy the most eurosceptic wing of the Tory party lacks credibility. At best, Cameron will probably, like Harold Wilson in 1975, come home with little more than a piece of paper. Perhaps further powers for national parliaments in scrutinising EU legislation, an exemption from the Working Time Directive (which many countries don't enforce anyway), a protocol about border control, tighter democratic controls over the European Commission - which would probably be supported by all parties. Achieving even this short list would be quite a feat but Tory backbenchers would still accuse him of a sell-out.
In truth, there is a good chance that Cameron will not even get the chance to renegotiate. Changing the treaties would require the unanimous consent of all 26 other countries and an intergovernmental conference. Nobody wants to re-open the treaties unless they have to and, with the eurozone now looking stronger, the prospect of rewriting the treaties to protect the single currency is growing more remote. Indeed, although it had been widely assumed that deeper integration of the eurozone would lead to treaty reform, Merkel has signalled that she will not push for any changes to the EU treaties in the near future. The banking union legislation falls under the existing legal framework, while plans to create a mutualised debt market and single finance minister for the eurozone, which would require treaty change, are now on the backburner.
Conservative party supporters up and down the country will have the bunting out over the weekend, but most voters will soon forget about Cameron's referendum promise. The next election will be decided by the economy, not by which party is the most eurosceptic. And while the Tories may think that they can force Ed Miliband onto the back foot, nobody should forget the fact that the Prime Minister made this speech not because he wanted to, but because he felt he had to.
Ben Fox is a reporter for EU Observer. He writes in a personal capacity
David Cameron speaks on January 24, 2013 during a session of the annual World Economic Forum (WEF) meeting in the Swiss resort of Davos. Photograph: Getty Images.
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John McDonnell interview: "We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility"

The shadow chancellor on the Spending Review, Jeremy Corbyn's leadership and why trade unions will have to break the law. 

When I interviewed John McDonnell in March, before the general election, he predicted that Labour would be the largest party and confessed to a “sneaking feeling that we could win a small majority – because I think the Tory vote is really soft”. As the long-standing chair of the Socialist Campaign Group, McDonnell anticipated leading the resistance inside Labour to any spending cuts made by Ed Miliband. Eight months later, he is indeed campaigning against austerity – but as shadow chancellor against a Conservative majority government.

I meet McDonnell in his new Westminster office in Norman Shaw South, a short walk down the corridor from that of his close friend and greatest ally, Jeremy Corbyn. The day before George Osborne delivers his Spending Review and Autumn Statement, his desk is cluttered with economic papers in preparation for his response.

“The message we’re trying to get across is that this concept of the Tories’ having a ‘long-term economic plan’ is an absolute myth and they’re in chaos, really in chaos on many fronts,” he tells me. McDonnell points to the revolt against cuts to tax credits and policing, and the social care crisis, as evidence that Osborne’s programme is unravelling. On health, he says: “He’s trying to dig out money as best as he can for the NHS, he’s announced the frontloading of some of it, but that simply covers the deficits that there are. Behind that, he’s looking for £22bn of savings, so this winter the NHS is going to be in crisis again.”

Asked what Labour’s equivalent is to the Tories’ undeniably effective “long-term economic plan” message, he said: “I don’t think we’re going to get into one-liners in that way. We’ll be more sophisticated in the way that we communicate. We’re going to have an intelligent and a mature economic debate. If I hear again that they’re going to ‘fix the roof while the sun shines’ I will throw up. It’s nauseating, isn’t it? It reduces debate, intellectual debate, economic debate, to the lowest level of a slogan. That’s why we’re in the mess we are.”

Having abandoned his original support for the Chancellor’s fiscal charter, which mandated a budget surplus by 2020, McDonnell makes an unashamed case for borrowing to invest. “The biggest failure of the last five years under Osborne is the failure to invest,” he says. “Borrowing at the moment is at its cheapest level, but in addition to that I’m not even sure we’ll need to borrow great amounts, because we can get more efficient spending in terms of government spending. If we can address the tax cuts that have gone ahead, particularly around corporation tax, that will give us the resources to actually start paying again in terms of investment.”

He promises a “line-by-line budget review” when I ask whether there are any areas in which he believes spending should be reduced. “My background is hard-nosed bureaucrat . . . we’ll be looking at where we can shift expenditure into more productive areas.”

From 1982 until 1985, John McDonnell, who is 64, was chair of finance at the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone. After vowing to defy the Thatcher government’s rate-capping policy he was sacked by Livingstone, who accused him of manipulating figures for political purposes. “We’re going to look like the biggest fucking liars since Goebbels,” the future mayor of London told him. McDonnell, who later described Livingstone’s account as “complete fiction”, has since resolved his differences with the man now co-chairing Labour’s defence review.

After his election as the MP for Hayes and Harlington in 1997, McDonnell achieved renown as one of New Labour’s most vociferous opponents, rebelling with a frequency rivalled only by Corbyn. His appointment as shadow chancellor was the most divisive of the Labour leader’s reshuffle. “People like Jeremy even if they don’t agree with him. People don’t like John,” one MP told me at the time. Mindful of this, McDonnell has sought to transform his image. He has apologised for his past praise of the IRA and for joking about assassinating Margaret Thatcher, rebranding himself as a “boring bank manager”. But there are moments when his more radical side surfaces.

He told me that he supports workers breaking the law if the trade union bill, which would limit the right to strike, is passed. “It’s inevitable, I think it’s inevitable. If the bill is introduced in its existing form and is used against any particular trade unionist or trade union, I think it’s inevitable that people will resist. We established our rights by campaigning against unjust laws and taking the risk if necessary. I think that’s inevitable and I’ll support them.”

“Chaos” might be how McDonnell describes Osborne’s position but the same term is now daily applied to Labour. The party is riven over air strikes in Syria and the renewal of Trident and MPs are ever more scornful of Corbyn’s leadership.

While Corbyn has so far refused to offer Labour MPs a free vote on Syria, McDonnell says that he favours one and would oppose military action. “My position on wars has always been that it’s a moral issue and therefore I veer towards free votes . . . We’re waiting for Cameron’s statement; we’ll analyse that, there’ll be a discussion in shadow cabinet and in the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] and then we’ll make a decision. I’m still in a situation where I’ve expressed the view that I’m opposed to the bombing campaign or engagement. I think the history of the UK involvement in the Middle East has been a disaster, to say the least . . .This isn’t like the Second World War where you have a military campaign – you defeat the enemy, you sign a peace agreement and that’s it – this is asymmetric warfare. In addition to the risks that are in the battlefield there’s a risk in every community in our land as a result of it.”

Would he want any of the 14 former shadow cabinet members who refused to serve under Corbyn to return? “All of them, we’re trying to get them all back. We’ve got Yvette [Cooper] helping us on a review we’re doing about the economy and women . . . It’s an open door policy, I’m trying to meet them all over these next few weeks.”

Livingstone, a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee, recently called for Simon Danczuk, who revealed details of a private meeting with Corbyn in the Mail on Sunday, and Frank Field, who told me that MPs should run as independents if deselected, to be disciplined. But McDonnell takes a more conciliatory line. “With Simon [Danczuk] in particular and the others, it’s just a matter of saying look at the long-term interests of the party. People don’t vote for a divided party. They’ll accept, though, that within a party you can have democratic debate. As I said time and time again, don’t mistake democracy for division. It’s the way in which you express those different views that are important. All I’m saying is let people express their views, let’s have democratic engagement but please don’t personalise this. I think there’s a reaction within the community, not just the party, against personalised politics. It’s not Jeremy’s style, he never responds in that way. It’s unfortunate but we’ll get through it. It’s just minor elements of it, that’s all.”

McDonnell disavows moves by some in Momentum, the Corbyn-aligned group, to deselect critical MPs. “What we’re not into is deselecting people, what we want to try and do is make sure that everyone’s involved in a democratic engagement process, simple as that.

“So I’ve said time and time again, this isn’t about deselection or whatever. But at the same what we’re trying to say to everybody is even if you disagree, treat each other with respect. At the height of the debates around tuition fees and the Iraq war, even though we had heated disagreements we always treated each other with mutual respect and I think we’ve got to adhere to that. Anyone who’s not doing that just lets themselves down, that’s not the culture of the Labour Party.”

In private, the 90 per cent of MPs who did not support Corbyn’s leadership bid speak often of how and when he could be removed. One point of debate is whether, under the current rules, the Labour leader would automatically make the ballot if challenged or be forced to re-seek nominations. McDonnell is emphatic that the former is the case: “Oh yeah, that’s the rule, yeah.”

McDonnell’s recent media performances have been praised by MPs, and he is spoken of by some on the left as a possible replacement if Corbyn is removed or stands down before 2020. His speech to the PLP on 23 November was described to me by one shadow minister as a “leadership bid”. But McDonnell rules out standing in any future contest. “No, no, I’ve tried twice [in 2007 and 2010], I’m not going to try again, there’s no way I would.”

Despite opinion polls showing Labour as much as 15 points behind the Conservatives, McDonnell insists that the party can win in 2020. “Oh definitely, yeah, you’ll see that. I think this next year’s going to be pivotal for us. We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility over the next six months. But more importantly than that, we can’t just be a negative party . . . we’re going to present a positive view of what Labour’s future will be and the future of the economy.

“Over the next 18 months, we’ll be in a situation where we’ve destroyed the Tories’ economic reputation and we’ve built up our own but we’ll do it in a visionary way that presents people with a real alternative.”  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.