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.

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

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.