Miliband must not lose control of Labour's EU referendum policy

Shadow minister Ian Austin's dramatic call for an in/out referendum next year shows how party unity is fraying.

While Westminster digested the resignation of Tom Watson, an extraordinary intervention by shadow work and pensions minister Ian Austin emerged. Writing in his local paper The Express and Star, Austin, a close friend and former flatmate of Watson's, broke ranks to call for an in/out EU referendum on the same day as next year's European elections. With no attempt to maintain any pretence of unity, he wrote:

[T]he truth is that the UK needs to decide and I would prefer it to do so more quickly. I know this isn't Labour Party policy but my view is that we should have a referendum next year on the same day as the European elections.

On the day that the Tories vote on James Wharton's private member's bill guaranteeing an EU referendum by 2017, and as they seek to frame Ed Miliband as too "weak" to lead his party, this is political gold for David Cameron. While frontbenchers, including Ed Balls and Jim Murphy, have previously hinted that they believe a referendum is inevitable (and desirable), none have gone as far as Austin. The more open Labour divisions on Europe become, the harder it will be for Miliband to mock those of the Tories. Indeed, the impression of Labour disunity has the consequence of reinforcing Conservative unity. 

The view among Labour MPs is that at some point before the next general election, Miliband will have to signal that an EU referendum would be held in the first term of a Labour government. The Labour leader has already pledged to keep the coalition's "referendum lock", which is designed to ensure a vote is triggered whenever significant powers are transferred to Brussels.

Under the 2011 European Union Act, this would be a referendum on the new treaty/powers but as Raf noted earlier this week, Nick Clegg has already signalled that, in his view, it would need to be an in/out vote. The likelihood is that Miliband will eventually do the same and, in addition, pledge to hold a referendum even if no major powers are transferred. But when this intervention comes, it will have to be at a moment of Miliband's choosing. It was the panic with which Cameron agreed to bring forward the draft referendum bill that allowed Labour to present him as a leader who had lost control. If Miliband is to avoid the same fate, he must not tolerate any more interventions like Austin's. 

Ed Miliband speaks at the CBI's annual conference on November 19, 2012 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

PMQs review: Theresa May shows how her confidence has grown

After her Brexit speech, the PM declared of Jeremy Corbyn: "I've got a plan - he doesn't have a clue". 

The woman derided as “Theresa Maybe” believes she has neutralised that charge. Following her Brexit speech, Theresa May cut a far more confident figure at today's PMQs. Jeremy Corbyn inevitably devoted all six of his questions to Europe but failed to land a definitive blow.

He began by denouncing May for “sidelining parliament” at the very moment the UK was supposedly reclaiming sovereignty (though he yesterday praised her for guaranteeing MPs would get a vote). “It’s not so much the Iron Lady as the irony lady,” he quipped. But May, who has sometimes faltered against Corbyn, had a ready retort. The Labour leader, she noted, had denounced the government for planning to leave the single market while simultaneously seeking “access” to it. Yet “access”, she went on, was precisely what Corbyn had demanded (seemingly having confused it with full membership). "I've got a plan - he doesn't have a clue,” she declared.

When Corbyn recalled May’s economic warnings during the referendum (“Does she now disagree with herself?”), the PM was able to reply: “I said if we voted to leave the EU the sky would not fall in and look at what has happened to our economic situation since we voted to leave the EU”.

Corbyn’s subsequent question on whether May would pay for single market access was less wounding than it might have been because she has consistently refused to rule out budget contributions (though yesterday emphasised that the days of “vast” payments were over).

When the Labour leader ended by rightly hailing the contribution immigrants made to public services (“The real pressure on public services comes from a government that slashed billions”), May took full opportunity of the chance to have the last word, launching a full-frontal attack on his leadership and a defence of hers. “There is indeed a difference - when I look at the issue of Brexit or any other issues like the NHS or social care, I consider the issue, I set out my plan and I stick to it. It's called leadership, he should try it some time.”

For May, life will soon get harder. Once Article 50 is triggered, it is the EU 27, not the UK, that will take back control (the withdrawal agreement must be approved by at least 72 per cent of member states). With MPs now guaranteed a vote on the final outcome, parliament will also reassert itself. But for now, May can reflect with satisfaction on her strengthened position.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.