Labour tuts at the Tories' "public school-boy games" over Europe

The afternoon's Europe debate is purposely designed to discomfit Labour. But Miliband's high-minded opposition is a risky strategy.

Parliament will this afternoon debate Britain’s relations with the European Union. The argument, it is safe to say, will not be terribly focused. The motion is that "this House has considered the matter of Europe." Doubtless, by the end of the day, after a fashion, it will have.

Of course the real purpose of the session – called by the government – is to allow Tory MPs to flaunt their newfound unity and to jeer at Labour discomfort. Now that the Prime Minister has promised a referendum on the UK’s membership (which is very popular with his backbenchers) and Ed Miliband has resisted doing the same (which makes many on his side uneasy) the Conservatives feel they are finally on the front foot on European issues and intend to plant their other foot into the opposition as hard as they can.

There are people on the Labour and the Lib Dem side who despairingly agree with the No. 10 analysis. One senior Labour figure calls his party’s position "ridiculous" on the grounds that "we can’t go into an election in opposition to the people." A Lib Dem strategist comments wryly that Cameron’s manoeuvre means effectively that "he has adopted pretty much the position that we had at the last election." (Clegg is the only major party leader with a pedigree of promising in/out EU plebiscites.)

There is residual confidence in the Miliband and Clegg camps that Cameron’s European position will unravel when it bumps into practical obstacles to delivering a deal in Brussels that Tory MPs can stomach. (As a sign of trouble on the horizon, Germany’s foreign minister has fired a clear warning shot at Downing Street.) Besides, Tory MPs are never satisfied with Cameron for long; some new grievance comes along soon enough.

But since the Prime Minister’s speech last week had a noticeably tonic effect on the party it is easy to see why Downing Street has decided to pour out another dose of the same heady brew. Labour’s approach to all this is, I gather, to play it long and high-minded. Miliband knows that Cameron’s position is designed exclusively by the short-term demands of party management and fear of Ukip. That, the Labour leader calculates, is a weak position whichever way you look at it. Under such circumstances, when the government is caught up in desperate short-term tactics, the opposition should be in the business of looking far-sighted and responsible – a sensible government-in-waiting.

Miliband’s aides are keen to point out that the very existence of today’s debate is a sign of panicky tactical machination in Downing Street. Why, they ask, should parliament spend its time kicking around the idea of a referendum that currently only exists in the hypothetical realm of a Tory majority government in 2017. Are there no more pressing foreign policy issues around? (Clue: Cameron himself is in Algeria this afternoon.)

It is all rather reminiscent of George Osborne’s decision to confect a separate Welfare Benefits Uprating Bill, carved out of the many announcements in last December’s Autumn Statement. The underlying policy – a real terms cut to the rate at which social security payments annually rise – did not require its own triumphal procession through parliament. The Bill was devised entirely to discomfit Labour and generate as much heat as possible around the question of the opposition’s addiction to welfare profligacy. (As it turned out, the public mood was more nuanced, with some evidence of a backlash against the Chancellor appearing to relish the prospect of picking poor families’ pockets.)

The view from Team Miliband is that this afternoon’s Europe debate is just another example of Cameron and Osborne playing, in the words of a senior aide, "snarky little public school-boy games" when they should be thinking of ways to fix the economy and look after the nation’s long-term strategic interests. It is a fair point. But, whether Miliband likes it or not, much of what goes on in the Palace of Westminster resembles games of varying degrees of shabbiness and cynical subterfuge. Voters don’t particularly respect that aspect of our politics – most of the time they don’t even notice. But tutting in disapproval from the sidelines in the hope of looking statesmanlike is a risky strategy in any competition.

Labour leader Ed Miliband addresses workers at Islington Town Hall. Photograph: Getty Images.

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

Photo: Getty
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What the debate over troops on the streets is missing

Security decisions are taken by professionals not politicians. But that doesn't mean there isn't a political context. 

First things first: the recommendation to raise Britain’s threat level was taken by the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre (JTAC), an organisation comprised of representatives from 16 government departments and agencies. It was not a decision driven through by Theresa May or by anyone whose job is at stake in the election on 8 June.

The resulting deployment of troops on British streets – Operation Temperer – is, likewise, an operational decision. They will do the work usually done by armed specialists in the police force protecting major cultural institutions and attractions, and government buildings including the Palace of Westminster. That will free up specialists in the police to work on counter-terror operations while the threat level remains at critical. It, again, is not a decision taken in order to bolster the Conservatives’ chances on 8 June. (Though intuitively, it seems likely to boost the electoral performance of the party that is most trusted on security issues, currently the Conservatives if the polls are to be believed.)

There’s a planet-sized “but” coming, though, and it’s this one: just because a decision was taken in an operational, not a political manner, doesn’t remove it from a wider political context. And in this case, there’s a big one: the reduction in the number of armed police specialists from 6979 when Labour left office to 5,639 today. That’s a cut of more than ten per cent in the number of armed specialists in the regular police – which is why Operation Temperer was drawn up under David Cameron in the first place.  There are 1340 fewer armed specialists in the police than there were seven years ago – a number that is more significant in the light of another: 900, the number of soldiers that will be deployed on British streets under Op Temperer. (I should add: the initial raft of police cuts were signed off by Labour in their last days in office.)

So while it’s disingenuous to claim that national security decisions are being taken to bolster May, we also shouldn’t claim that operational decisions aren’t coloured by spending decisions made by the government.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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