The Tories have descended into madness on Europe - Labour should leave them to it

Ed Miliband should hold his nerve and resist demands to make his own hasty referendum pledge.

Rarely has the Conservative Party looked less like "the natural party of government" and more like a sixth form debating society. In a desperate final attempt to appease his carnivorous backbenchers, David Cameron gave way last night and agreed to a publish a draft EU referendum bill. It would not be a piece of government legislation (despite recent appearances to the contrary, this remains a coalition) but it could be taken forward by a plucky eurosceptic as a private members' bill. "Surely they'll be happy now?", the Prime Minister said (or words to that effect).

His plea for a reprieve was rejected as hastily as it was offered. Appearing on BBC News, John Baron, one of the MPs responsible for tabling the Queen's Speech amendment, simply replied: "not enough". Accusing Cameron of "panic" (he was right about that), he confirmed that he would not be withdrawing the amendment and urged all Tory ministers to vote for it. Disregarding the inconvenient fact that the Conservatives did not win the last election, he insisted that only a bill with the imprimatur of the government would suffice. Nadine Dorries, meanwhile, fresh from a party to celebrate her return to the Conservative fold, warned that a referendum in 2017 was too late, going on to repeat her demand for the Tories to run co-candidates with UKIP at the general election (the two could have a "joint logo", she mused). Once again, Cameron has tried and failed to appease the unappeasable. 

Even now, as the Conservative Party descends into the depths of euromania, there are some on the left and the right who argue that it is Labour that should be worried. Don't the opinion polls show that the public overwhelmingly support a referendum on EU membership? True, but then the polls invariably show that, if offered a say on any issue, the voters always favour it. The salient point remains that just 1 per cent of them regard it as "the most important issue" facing Britain (compared to apparently 90 per cent of Tory backbenchers) and just 7 per cent regard it as "one of the most important issues". The more time the Conservatives spend "banging on" about Europe, the less time they spend talking about the issues - the economy, jobs, housing, public services - that might actually help them win the next election. 

For this reason, among others, Ed Miliband has been right not to match Cameron's pledge of an in/out referendum. To do so now would be an act of supreme political weakness. In this instance, little is required of the Labour leader other than to stand back and watch the Conservatives indulge in another bout of political self-harm.

Those commentators who declared Cameron's referendum pledge a masterstroke that would unite the Tories, scupper UKIP and revive his party's poll ratings were wrong on every count. Miliband's own problems may be far from trivial but the longer the Tories appear to have given up listening the voters, the greater the chance that the voters will give up listening to them. 

David Cameron attends a press conference at the EU Headquarters on March 15, 2013 in Brussels. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.