PMQs review: Miliband says "no" to an EU referendum but Cameron fails to notice

Rather than attacking the Labour leader for opposing a referendum, the Prime Minister claimed he had no position.

Ed Miliband knew that he would be challenged by David Cameron at today's PMQs to say whether he will match his pledge to hold an in/out referendum on the EU. And he also knew that laconically replying, "I ask the questions", wouldn't be good enough. So his answer, when it came, was a clear one: "My position is no! We don't want an in/out referendum." It was a response that will have been greeted with cheers across CCHQ. The Tories now have an on-the-record pledge from Miliband to deny the voters a say on the EU. 

Oddly, however, Cameron failed to take advantage of Miliband's error. Rather than attacking the Labour leader for opposing a referendum, he accused him of having no position at all. "His whole argument about uncertainty is undermined by his inability to say whether he supports a referendum or not", Cameron said, adding: "go away and get a policy". For today, at least, Miliband was spared. 

The Labour leader devoted most of his questions to asking Cameron whether he would still campaign for an "in" vote if his renegotiation strategy fails. The Prime Minister simply replied, "I support Britain's membership of a reformed EU", leaving open the question of whether he supported Britain's membership of an unreformed EU.

A better response came when he declared, "only the leader of the opposition would go into negotiations expecting to fail." As a holding answer, this is not a bad one. Since any renegotiation will not begin until after 2015, Cameron will not have to elaborate any further. He turned the debate to his advantage by arguing that Miliband was unable to answer "the most basic question of all": do you want a referendum?" When the Labour leader replied "no", the Prime Minister apparently failed to notice. His party, however, did. If Miliband continues to oppose a referendum, they can accuse him 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. If he later comes out in favour of one, they can accuse him of performing a humiliating U-turn. The Tories have Miliband exactly where they want him. 

David Cameron delivers his speech on the UK's relationship with the EU at Bloomberg's headquarters in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Theresa May is paying the price for mismanaging Boris Johnson

The Foreign Secretary's bruised ego may end up destroying Theresa May. 

And to think that Theresa May scheduled her big speech for this Friday to make sure that Conservative party conference wouldn’t be dominated by the matter of Brexit. Now, thanks to Boris Johnson, it won’t just be her conference, but Labour’s, which is overshadowed by Brexit in general and Tory in-fighting in particular. (One imagines that the Labour leadership will find a way to cope somehow.)

May is paying the price for mismanaging Johnson during her period of political hegemony after she became leader. After he was betrayed by Michael Gove and lacking any particular faction in the parliamentary party, she brought him back from the brink of political death by making him Foreign Secretary, but also used her strength and his weakness to shrink his empire.

The Foreign Office had its responsibility for negotiating Brexit hived off to the newly-created Department for Exiting the European Union (Dexeu) and for navigating post-Brexit trade deals to the Department of International Trade. Johnson was given control of one of the great offices of state, but with no responsibility at all for the greatest foreign policy challenge since the Second World War.

Adding to his discomfort, the new Foreign Secretary was regularly the subject of jokes from the Prime Minister and cabinet colleagues. May likened him to a dog that had to be put down. Philip Hammond quipped about him during his joke-fuelled 2017 Budget. All of which gave Johnson’s allies the impression that Johnson-hunting was a licensed sport as far as Downing Street was concerned. He was then shut out of the election campaign and has continued to be a marginalised figure even as the disappointing election result forced May to involve the wider cabinet in policymaking.

His sense of exclusion from the discussions around May’s Florence speech only added to his sense of isolation. May forgot that if you aren’t going to kill, don’t wound: now, thanks to her lost majority, she can’t afford to put any of the Brexiteers out in the cold, and Johnson is once again where he wants to be: centre-stage. 

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