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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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.