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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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

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