Miliband waits in hope that the Tories’ counterfeit consensus on Europe will unravel

MPs who last year wanted the Labour leader to trump Cameron by calling for a snap poll on Europe say the moment has passed.

Conservatives have given up trying to agree on whether Britain should be a member of the European Union. They have settled instead for a lesser harmony, agreeing that the matter should be settled by a referendum. They cheer through parliament a symbolic bill stipulating that such a vote be held by the end of 2017.

This counterfeit consensus has obvious charm for Tory MPs. It allows them to say with a straight face that the party is united on Europe. The moment of choice is deferred. Since the EU is evolving, none but the most determined quitters feel sure that in four years’ time it will still be the kind of union Britain should leave. What Conservatives can say with certainty is that David Cameron wants a referendum and Ed Miliband doesn’t, which feels like a great advantage to a party with an inflated sense of national grievance against Brussels.

The Tories are so proud of their plebiscite pledge that they keep expecting Miliband to copy it. The Labour leader is under frequent pressure to do just that from those on his own side who find their present stance untenable. Officially, the party prefers the prospect of governing without a referendum, while accepting that any new EU treaty would trigger one automatically. Some of the leader’s closest allies concede that something less slippery must be declared before too long.

The range of options is narrowing. Until recently some on the Labour side entertained the idea of hijacking the Tories’ backbench bill with demands for a vote this side of a general election, thereby sowing discord in the Conservative ranks. That ruse was killed when Adam Afriyie, a Tory MP of guileless ambition, tabled just such an amendment and found his colleagues slow to schism.

That reaction convinced Labour provocateurs that there was less mischief to be made in alliance with rebellious Tories than they had previously thought. MPs who last year wanted Miliband to trump Cameron by calling for a snap poll on Europe say the moment for such a gambit has passed. “That particular bus has left the station,” says one shadow cabinet supporter of a referendum.

The next bus – and the one some in Miliband’s entourage are most interested in boarding – leaves next May when there are elections for the European Parliament. Declaring support for an in/out referendum in the run-up to that poll gives Labour cover to say its agenda has been set by the natural rhythms of a campaign timetable. At any other moment, it would too conspicuously be a panicky reaction to Tory taunts.

The need to be seen doing things “on his own terms, in his own time” (as one aide likes to put it) is of paramount importance to Miliband. The Conservatives want to portray him as out of his depth – a peddler of desperate ruses unsuitable for mature government. So the worst of all outcomes for the Labour leader would be a half-hearted manoeuvre in which the political gain of signing up to a referendum is cancelled out by his inability to make it sound like something he really wants to do.

Set against that risk is the folly of fighting a general election campaign in which Cameron can claim to be the only potential prime minister who trusts the people to choose their European destiny. That line may not stir millions of hearts but it might steer some Ukip dabblers back to the Tory fold.

Nigel Farage is keener than anyone for Miliband to sign up to a referendum so that Cameron’s pledge loses its unique sheen. The Ukip leader thrives on the public feeling that the “established” parties are interchangeable and that the only way to make a difference is by voting for none of them. Where Ukip does well, Labour can snatch seats from the Tories, so there is a perverse incentive for Miliband to satisfy Farage, spoiling the potency of Cameron’s referendum by making it a point of banal Westminster concord.

That calculation is part of a general equation governing Labour’s position on referendum: the likelihood of a pledge grows as long as the party’s opinion poll lead stays narrow. Yet changing the policy opens a whole new set of dilemmas for Miliband. He would have to say when he imagines calling the vote and whether, like Cameron, he proposes renegotiating the terms of British membership first. Neither question has an easy answer.

One modest consolation is that Cameron’s renegotiation plans are going nowhere. The Prime Minister has quietly downgraded his ambition from an Anglocentric “repatriation” of powers to a campaign for vaguer pan-EU “reform”. The kind of exceptional status for the UK that hardline Tory sceptics demand isn’t even on the agenda when Cameron meets fellow Continental leaders.

The small troupe of pro-EU Tories support their leader on what appears to be a secret mission to shrink expectations of a new settlement with Brussels. They also hope the prospect of a referendum will provoke business leaders – including Conservative donors – into making the case for staying in the club. (A recent call by the CBI for constructive European engagement is cited as the start of a fightback against the “Brexit” brigade.) The ultimate goal is to shift the party’s centre of gravity back towards pragmatic acceptance of EU membership, leaving the irreconcilables marginalised. “We are smoking out the ones who are definitely voting ‘out’ at all costs,” says one Conservative Europhile.

Many Tories have drunk Cameron’s rhetoric as if it were a Eurosceptic tonic, seemingly unaware that its purpose is to numb their rebellious urges. The anaesthetic draught cannot work forever; the old pangs of betrayal will return. There may be loftier elements in Labour’s European calculations but at their core is a gamble on whether the effects of Cameron’s dodgy potion to unite the Tories wears off before Miliband is forced to serve up a referendum brew of his own.

David Cameron speaks during a press conference at an EU Council meeting on October 25, 2013 in Brussels. Photograph: Getty Images.

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

This article first appeared in the 06 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Are cities getting too big?

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Brexit is teaching the UK that it needs immigrants

Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past.

Why did the UK vote to leave the EU? For conservatives, Brexit was about regaining parliamentary sovereignty. For socialists it was about escaping the single market. For still more it was a chance to punish David Cameron and George Osborne. But supreme among the causes was the desire to reduce immigration.

For years, as the government repeatedly missed its target to limit net migration to "tens of thousands", the EU provided a convenient scapegoat. The free movement of people allegedly made this ambition unachievable (even as non-European migration oustripped that from the continent). When Cameron, the author of the target, was later forced to argue that the price of leaving the EU was nevertheless too great, voters were unsurprisingly unconvinced.

But though the Leave campaign vowed to gain "control" of immigration, it was careful never to set a formal target. As many of its senior figures knew, reducing net migration to "tens of thousands" a year would come at an economic price (immigrants make a net fiscal contribution of £7bn a year). An OBR study found that with zero net migration, public sector debt would rise to 145 per cent of GDP by 2062-63, while with high net migration it would fall to 73 per cent. For the UK, with its poor productivity and sub-par infrastructure, immigration has long been an economic boon. 

When Theresa May became Prime Minister, some cabinet members hoped that she would abolish the net migration target in a "Nixon goes to China" moment. But rather than retreating, the former Home Secretary doubled down. She regards the target as essential on both political and policy grounds (and has rejected pleas to exempt foreign students). But though the same goal endures, Brexit is forcing ministers to reveal a rarely spoken truth: Britain needs immigrants.

Those who boasted during the referendum of their desire to reduce the number of newcomers have been forced to qualify their remarks. On last night's Question Time, Brexit secretary David Davis conceded that immigration woud not invariably fall following Brexit. "I cannot imagine that the policy will be anything other than that which is in the national interest, which means that from time to time we’ll need more, from time to time we’ll need less migrants."

Though Davis insisted that the government would eventually meet its "tens of thousands" target (while sounding rather unconvinced), he added: "The simple truth is that we have to manage this problem. You’ve got industry dependent on migrants. You’ve got social welfare, the national health service. You have to make sure they continue to work."

As my colleague Julia Rampen has charted, Davis's colleagues have inserted similar caveats. Andrea Leadsom, the Environment Secretary, who warned during the referendum that EU immigration could “overwhelm” Britain, has told farmers that she recognises “how important seasonal labour from the EU is to the everyday running of your businesses”. Others, such as the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, the Business Secretary, Greg Clark, and the Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid, have issued similar guarantees to employers. Brexit is fuelling immigration nimbyism: “Fewer migrants, please, but not in my sector.”

The UK’s vote to leave the EU – and May’s decision to pursue a "hard Brexit" – has deprived the government of a convenient alibi for high immigration. Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past. Brexit may have been caused by the supposed costs of immigration but it is becoming an education in its benefits.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.