Why Miliband's position on the EU is stronger than it appears

Tory unity will prove shortlived and the Labour leader could execute a relatively painless U-turn on a referendum.

For a day when the Prime Minister and the leader of the opposition said exactly what they had been expected to say, there was rather a lot of excitement.

David Cameron yesterday promised to attempt a renegotiation of Britain’s membership of the European Union (EU) and, having secured a better deal (as he sees it) invite the British people to back the arrangement or walk away. This position had already been advertised in advance, albeit after much behind-the-scenes haggling and Downing Street floor-pacing.

Ed Miliband, meanwhile, said he thought it was not a good idea to pledge a referendum now and that the whole thing was a reckless gamble with Britain’s future driven only by the need to quell brewing rebellion on the Tory benches. This position, also produced after much haggling in the shadow cabinet, was known in advance too.

And yet, somehow, when it actually happened it was still big news. That is partly because all the pent-up journalistic energy that had gone into the pre-speech reporting had to be released and partly because the two positions got a good theatrical airing in Prime Minister’s Questions in the Commons. Besides, thinking something is very likely to happen and it actually happening are different things.

So where does the land lie now? There was a strong feeling around Westminster yesterday that Cameron had played a tough hand well and that Miliband had thrown away a bunch of good cards. The justification for that view is that the Tories seemed uncannily united, cheering the PM lustily on an issue that is famously divisive in the Conservative Party. The Labour leader, meanwhile, looked trapped in a contradictory position. The essence of his argument is that Cameron’s pledge offers dangerous uncertainty, yet Miliband seemed uncertain as to what precisely he wanted.

That is because there are enough people on the Labour side who think a referendum is inevitable and so consider it madness to rule one out. That leaves Miliband in the position of partially closing the door, which is never as dramatic as slamming it shut (or flinging it open).

The concern for the Labour referendum advocates is that Miliband is stuck now in a position of perpetually explaining why he doesn’t "trust the people", when Cameron can say he has a perfectly clear policy of democratic renewal for the EU and wants to get on with the job of making it happen. Cameron’s position is indeed clear. It is also unrealistic - the renegotiation that the Tory benches envisage will never happen to their satisfaction. By contrast, Miliband’s position is realistic and unclear. He is right to question the wisdom of starting a phoney referendum war on issues that are plainly a distraction from what the UK government and EU leaders should be doing. But to people who don’t follow these things obsessively, Miliband's argument is not a quick sell.

In the first phase of the news cycle, Cameron’s gimmicky clarity trumps Miliband’s technical realism. But will that continue to be the case? It is certainly true that Labour will find it hard to get through the next two years, let alone an election campaign, without a better answer to the “trust the people” question.

At the moment, Miliband has cover from the Liberal Democrats who share his view of the issue and use pretty much the same language. But it is not at all guaranteed that this tacit alliance will hold. The situation is even trickier for the Lib Dems than for Labour to the extent that they have bandied around the idea of an in/out referendum before. So refusing to back one when it actually comes up as a serious prospect risks reinforcing all the worst aspects of Nick Clegg’s tarnished brand – pledge-busting, slippery, gutless etc. All the mean things the focus groups have been saying about him since the whole tuition fees debacle will be rehearsed again.

There is a strong chance the Lib Dems will go into the next election with an EU referendum pledge. One senior Clegg advisor, conceding the point that it would be agony to fight a campaign on a platform ostensibly denying the nation a choice, recently told me: “the best way to take the issue and nullify it is to match the Tories’ commitment.” This advisor also expected Labour to come to the same conclusion. The best way to stop referendum questions dominating a campaign would be for everyone to have one in their manifesto. For the time being that doesn’t appear to be Clegg’s formal position, but the option is plainly being kept open.

If the Lib Dems fold on the referendum point, Labour will look very exposed. (It also matters because it will be one of those issues that gets kicked around in discussions of who could more easily form a coalition with whom in the event of another hung parliament.)

Interestingly, one of the key reasons Miliband doesn’t think it is a good idea to pledge a plebiscite is that he thinks he has a decent chance of actually becoming Prime Minister after the next election. He doesn’t fancy spending the first 18 months of his term in office on the campaign trail against Ukip and what would by then be a hysterically anti-EU opposition Tory party. It is a fair point. If David Cameron needs to fiddle around the policy margins pretending the biggest issue in the world right now is repatriating the right to scrap paid holiday and maternity leave to stop his backbenchers hating him for a couple of days, well, that’s his problem. Why should that set Labour’s agenda for government?

But that’s not an argument that Miliband or his allies can easily make in public. It doubles down on the risk of looking arrogant: "We think we’re going to win and when we do, we’ll have better things to do than ask the people if they want to stay in the EU" is not what you might call a populist narrative.

Still, there are at least two reasons why I think Miliband’s position is better than it looks right now.

First, the Tories are united only in relief that they have a clear position and in joy that their leader has done something unabashedly, uncompromisingly true blue Conservative. Neither of those conditions can stay in place for long. The renegotiation will not happen quickly enough for the hardline sceptics and whatever concessions Cameron extracts from fellow EU leaders will have to be matched with compromises elsewhere. Tory MPs are allergic to EU compromise.

There will be European Council meetings at least every six months between now and the election and in the run-up to each one, Conservatives will expect the Prime Minister to show progress in his grand repatriation project. Even if there is a modicum of willingness to accommodate British demands in Brussels, it won’t be on a timetable that satisfies the sceptics.

Meanwhile, Cameron is still in coalition with the Lib Dems. What Tory MPs were cheering yesterday was a great emancipation. They felt liberated. But they aren’t and when they realise it, they’ll be cross. They think they have won a right to dictate policy to Downing Street and will only get more assertive and impatient as a result. Yet the Lib Dems will also now have to become more assertive to prove that Clegg has more say over what goes on than some Euro-bashing Conservative backbencher. The potential for that dynamic to cause havoc and undermine Cameron’s position is immense.

The second reason Miliband’s position isn’t quite so bad is that he has a clearer escape route than is generally realised. In the run-up to the big Cameron speech, the Labour leader made an important policy concession: he said he would not repeal the European Union Bill. This is the piece of coalition legislation that provides for a referendum in the event of any new treaty transferring powers to Brussels. (Labour abstained when parliament voted on it.)

If there is a new EU treaty in train at some point over the next two years – which is very possible, but not certain – Miliband can say that he would, in government, honour the provisions of the act. If pressed he could even say that, yes, this new treaty looks likely to substantially alter the terms of Britain’s relations with the EU and so, yes, he would call a referendum. If he really wanted to, he could say the treaty is so substantial that the question on the ballot should be endorsement of the new arrangement or exit – thereby essentially matching Cameron’s pledge from yesterday. I don’t say this is a likely scenario, simply that the space for a relatively painless U-turn for the Labour leader may well be there should he need it.

By far the greater threat to Miliband is the prospect of his party generally lacking patience and confidence in his judgment. If opinion polls show a referendum pledge bounce for Cameron – as a few Ukip considerers slip back to the Tories – Labour’s lead could shrivel into the margin of error. At that point there is bound to be a revival of chatter about the inadequacy of the Labour leader’s performance, his perceived lack of policy clarity and want of strategic direction. Those anxieties are never far below the surface of Labour’s veneer of unity. Miliband must now hope that the even more superficial, brittle unity that David Cameron achieved in his own party yesterday ruptures first.

Ed Miliband delivers a speech on the EU at the CBI last year. Photograph: Getty Images.

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

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How to explain Brexit to your kids

It’s not hard. The Brexiteers’ tantrums are a parody of how children behave.

My parents never sat me down for “the politics talk”. I suspect they were too embarrassed. Like many children of my generation, I was left to develop my own ideas about what adults did in private.

We didn’t have the internet and our arms were too short to open most newspapers (scientists were still working on the tabloid-broadsheet hybrid). Hence we picked up news randomly, either by overhearing snippets on the radio while buying sweets in the newsagent’s or by accidentally watching the start of the six o’clock news following the end of Charles In Charge.

By the time I was nine, the same age my eldest child is now, I had unrealistic expectations of politicians and the democratic process. Due to the fact that I had no idea what anyone was talking about, I assumed everyone in the House of Commons was having serious, informed thoughts about the most important issues of the day.

I now know that the real reason I couldn’t understand what anyone was saying was because what had sounded like “roargh roargh [insult] <braying laughter>” really had been “roargh roargh [insult] <braying laughter>” all along. I’d assumed it was a language I had yet to learn, one of the more specialised dialects of Adult-ese. I’d already wasted one vote by the time I realised that Prime Minister’s Questions was basically Jeremy Kyle with posher accents and minus the lie detector tests.

I don’t want my children to make the same mistakes as me. Thankfully, it turns out Brexit Britain is the ideal place to teach your kids how politics really works. Never has there been a time when those stalking the corridors of power were more in tune with the average tantruming toddler. There’s no point in rational argument; you just have to hope that those in power burn themselves out before too much damage is done.

This particular tantrum has of course been building for some time. The dominant rhetoric of the Leave campaign – like that of the Tory party itself – always offered a spoilt child’s view of the world, one in which you are the centre of the universe, depending on no one else for your survival.

When others point out that this isn’t the case – that perhaps you wouldn’t have a home and food on the table if it wasn’t for Mummy or Daddy, or perhaps the UK would not have a strong economy were it not a member of the EU – you simply tell them they’re being mean. You’ll show them! They’re not the boss of you! So you pack your bags and leave.

If you are six, you might get to the corner of your road, realise with disappointment that no one is following you and turn back, hoping no one noticed you were gone. If you are the UK, you hang around for a while, maybe hiding in some bushes, thinking “any minute now they’ll come looking for me.”

But they don’t, so eventually you think “sod ‘em, I’ll go to my mates’. Unfortunately, you cannot get there without Mummy to drive you. This is a problem. But at least you can tell yourself that you were doubly right to leave, since everything that is happening now is Mummy’s fault.

Never in British politics has the panicked outrage of those who know they are making a terrible mistake been so palpable. It reminds me of the time when I was teaching my eldest son to drink from a beaker. He kept spilling small amounts, which caused him so much distress he’d end up pouring the rest of the juice onto the carpet to make it look deliberate. Whenever I tried to stop him, I’d only make him more panicked, thus even more likely to get juice everywhere.

I have since asked him if he remembers why he did this. He says he does not, but I have told him this is what the British government is doing with Brexit. The referendum was the initial spillage; we now have to sit and watch, biting our tongues, in the hope that the “well, anyhow, I totally meant to do that!” response can be averted.

There is little chance of that, though. When my middle son told his older brother he could fly, he quickly backed down on being asked to demonstrate this by jumping from an upstairs window. Liam Fox would have thrown himself headlong, then blamed Project Fear for his broken neck. Or rather, he’d have thrown someone else – one of the millions of people whose lives really will be ruined by Brexit – then tried to argue that the exceptionally bendy necks of UK citizens could be used as one of the “main cards” in negotiations.

The behaviour is beyond childlike; it is a parody of how children behave. When I asked one of my sons to clean his teeth this morning, he called me a “poo head” and said his teeth wouldn’t get decay. He still brushed them, though.

He did not conclude I was some sinister sore loser out to trick him because his teeth are young and white and mine are old and stained. He still has some basic sense that people who ask you to do things you don’t want to do might yet have your best interests at heart, regardless of who is right or wrong. He did not call me a sneering member of the elite trying to override the will of all toothpaste-rejecting British children (to be fair, I think “poo head” may have been meant to capture that, but at least he only called me it once).

Then again, the teeth in my son’s head are his alone. The consequences of neglect would be his to endure. Those stage-managing the Brexit tantrum are insulated from its most devastating consequences. Thus they can hurl insults, stick their fingers in their ears and take more than a little pleasure in the sheer recklessness of it all. It is not just an extended childhood; it is childhood without having to come to terms with the consequences of your own behaviour, because others will suffer them for you.

I want my own children to understand that what they see now is not what politics should be. That there is not some deep, meaningful logic underpinning what the adults in charge are doing. What looks like bitterness, point-scoring and sheer lack of self-control is, more often than not, just that. We have indulged these people too long. Let’s raise a generation with higher expectations of those who will claim to speak on their behalf.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.