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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.

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

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.