Why Miliband would be foolish to match the Tory EU referendum pledge

Such a clear U-turn would cement a corrosive narrative that could prove far more damaging to his prospects of becoming Prime Minister – that of weakness.

Those of a nostalgic bent might find the enduring ability of 'Europe' to cause such disruption in British politics somewhat reassuring. After all, it has been a reliably consistent source of crisis for both Labour and the Conservative Party for nearly 40 years. Labour’s European troubles are often forgotten but the party was at least as exercised over Europe in the 70s and early 80s as the Conservative Party has been since the 90s. Indeed, the last referendum on Britain’s EU membership nearly split the Labour Party in 1975, while the party eventually did split, in large part over Europe, in 1981.

Now it seems Labour’s turn to be the party engaging in undignified convulsions over Europe has come round again. The Conservatives probably can’t believe their luck.

Incredibly, given the inordinate amount of time spent addressing the issue by all parties, Europe has never registered as more than a blip on the most important concerns of British voters. Even now, at a time when Europe is rarely out of the news and politicians and journalists alike fixate on the future of the UK’s EU membership, just 7% of voters mention it when asked to identify "important issues facing Britain today" (43% mention the economy; 38% immigration) and just 1% identify it as the "most" important.

Put simply, a pre-occupation with Europe is not a useful trait for winning elections (something to which former Conservative leader William Hague’s disastrous 'Save the Pound' campaign of the 2001 election attests).

And yet Labour bigwigs like Ed Balls and Jon Cruddas are convinced that neglecting to match or better David Cameron’s promise of an in/out EU referendum by 2017 could be an election-losing move.

In fact, the opposite is likely to be true. Such a clear U-turn, made in response to pressure from Miliband's (notional) subordinates, would cement a corrosive narrative that could prove far more damaging to his prospects of becoming Prime Minister – that of weakness.

Miliband has refused to match David Cameron’s pledge to hold a referendum in 2017 on the grounds that to do so now would create a long period of uncertainty over Britain’s membership which would be detrimental to British business. The party is committed to retaining the coalition's 'referendum lock', however, meaning that in the event of a further transfer of powers from the UK to the EU, a referendum would automatically be triggered.

This current position is a perfectly reasonable one. Deviating from it would play into the hands of the Conservatives and raise further questions about his competence as a leader. Beyond the leadership issue, there are two other reasons why it’s frankly a lousy idea:

1) It suits Labour to focus on the economy and public services and leave the European issue to the Conservatives. Matching the Tory pledge would cast the Conservatives as a party leading the way on Europe, rather than one that simply cannot help itself from obsessing over an issue that means relatively little to most of the public.

2) The electoral benefits of doing so would likely be negligible – Labour is a pro-European party; voters ready to change their vote based on the offer of an in/out referendum are likely to be voters who want to leave the EU and are thus probably beyond Labour’s reach regardless of its stance. 

There has been some discussion in Labour ranks of calling for a referendum before the next election. Those in favour argue that it would throw the Tories into disarray, while remaining consistent with Labour’s position that a referendum with a long lead time would undermine investment in British business. Such a move would risk charges of rank opportunism but far more importantly would open the door to Labour’s worst-case scenario – a British exit from the EU. Add to that the fact that polls indicate most voters to be in favour of renegotiation, rather than an immediate referendum and it begins to look like a less than astute move.

Ed Miliband should be wary of those who would put so much public pressure on a leader to reverse a position he is known to hold on principle, particularly when, as now, he is vulnerable to charges of weakness and indecision. Calling for a referendum at the Labour conference in September, as some are suggesting, would not look bold in this context, it would look spineless – quite possibly a 'quiet man turning up the volume' moment…

Ed Miliband attends a Q&A session at the Eric Liddle centre on 23 August, 2013 in Edinburgh, Scotland. Photograph: Getty Images.

Richard Mylles is a political analyst at Absolute Strategy Research, an independent consultancy based in London.

Picture: ANDRÉ CARRILHO
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Leader: Boris Johnson, a liar and a charlatan

The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. 

Boris Johnson is a liar, a charlatan and a narcissist. In 1988, when he was a reporter at the Times, he fabricated a quotation from his godfather, an eminent historian, which duly appeared in a news story on the front page. He was sacked. (We might pause here to acknowledge the advantage to a young journalist of having a godfather whose opinions were deemed worthy of appearing in a national newspaper.) Three decades later, his character has not improved.

On 17 September, Mr Johnson wrote a lengthy, hyperbolic article for the Daily Telegraph laying out his “vision” for Brexit – in terms calculated to provoke and undermine the Prime Minister (who was scheduled to give a speech on Brexit in Florence, Italy, as we went to press). Extracts of his “article”, which reads more like a speech, appeared while a terror suspect was on the loose and the country’s threat level was at “critical”, leading the Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, to remark: “On the day of a terror attack where Britons were maimed, just hours after the threat level is raised, our only thoughts should be on service.”

Three other facets of this story are noteworthy. First, the article was published alongside other pieces echoing and praising its conclusions, indicating that the Telegraph is now operating as a subsidiary of the Johnson for PM campaign. Second, Theresa May did not respond by immediately sacking her disloyal Foreign Secretary – a measure of how much the botched election campaign has weakened her authority. Finally, it is remarkable that Mr Johnson’s article repeated the most egregious – and most effective – lie of the EU referendum campaign. “Once we have settled our accounts, we will take back control of roughly £350m per week,” the Foreign Secretary claimed. “It would be a fine thing, as many of us have pointed out, if a lot of that money went on the NHS.”

This was the promise of Brexit laid out by the official Vote Leave team: we send £350m to Brussels, and after leaving the EU, that money can be spent on public services. Yet the £350m figure includes the rebate secured by Margaret Thatcher – so just under a third of the sum never leaves the country. Also, any plausible deal will involve paying significant amounts to the EU budget in return for continued participation in science and security agreements. To continue to invoke this figure is shameless. That is not a partisan sentiment: the head of the UK Statistics Authority, Sir David Norgrove, denounced Mr Johnson’s “clear misuse of official statistics”.

In the days that followed, the chief strategist of Vote Leave, Dominic Cummings – who, as Simon Heffer writes in this week's New Statesman, is widely suspected of involvement in Mr Johnson’s article – added his voice. Brexit was a “shambles” so far, he claimed, because of the ineptitude of the civil service and the government’s decision to invoke Article 50 before outlining its own detailed demands.

There is a fine Yiddish word to describe this – chutzpah. Mr Johnson, like all the other senior members of Vote Leave in parliament, voted to trigger Article 50 in March. If he and his allies had concerns about this process, the time to speak up was then.

It has been clear for some time that Mr Johnson has no ideological attachment to Brexit. (During the referendum campaign, he wrote articles arguing both the Leave and Remain case, before deciding which one to publish – in the Telegraph, naturally.) However, every day brings fresh evidence that he and his allies are not interested in the tough, detailed negotiations required for such an epic undertaking. They will brush aside any concerns about our readiness for such a huge challenge by insisting that Brexit would be a success if only they were in charge of it.

This is unlikely. Constant reports emerge of how lightly Mr Johnson treats his current role. At a summit aiming to tackle the grotesque humanitarian crisis in Yemen, he is said to have astounded diplomats by joking: “With friends like these, who needs Yemenis?” The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. By extension, he demeans our politics. 

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left