EU flags float in Lille, northern France, on April 18, 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Labour's opposition to an EU referendum is its trump card with business

Large companies are increasingly troubled by the threat of EU withdrawal under the Tories.
 

The one moment of spontaneous applause during Ed Miliband's speech to business leaders today came when he declared: "I am absolutely convinced that our future lies in the EU". Further applause followed as he reaffirmed his opposition to an arbitrary in/out referendum (Miliband would only hold one in the unlikely event of a further transfer of powers to Brussels) and said "it is not the priority for the country".

The EU is the one issue on which Labour has an unambiguous advantage over the Tories with business. Indeed, it is precisely this that troubles Len McCluskey (whose union has voted in favour of a referendum). He said yesterday: "As things stand, Labour won't [call for a referendum] because ducking this question is seen as part of Labour's commitment to business. That is a vast hostage to fortune. I would not like to be Ed Miliband explaining why he is not joining other parties in offering the British people a vote on something that is clearly a growing source of public concern."

Many large companies are far more worried by the threat of withdrawal than they are by Miliband's proposed energy price freeze or the reintroduction of the 50p tax rate. Martin Sorrell recently revealed that he and others had told David Cameron that "if he were to drop the referendum he would be a shoo-in". That's almost certainly not the case (as Sorrell appeared to forget, most voters support a referendum) but it shows how desperate businesses are for Britain to remain in the EU. 

It is a point that Ed Balls, who has been troubled by the party's lack of industry support, is particularly keen to make.  Having working hard to ensure that Labour did not rule out a referendum in all circumstances, he has swung firmly behind Miliband's position. After telling Newsnight that it would be "silly" to avoid a vote at all costs (a comment which was mistakenly thought to refer to a referendum at any time), he added: "We are not proposing a referendum now because we think to spend two or three years blighting investment and undermining our economy on the prospect of a referendum which David Cameron says he is going to have after he gets an unknown package of refoms would be bad for jobs and investment".

Labour figures privately concede that they are still unlikely to win the support of  a single FTSE 100 boss at the election, but the increasing possibility that the UK would leave the EU under the Tories may complicate the picture. It is, however, a price that Cameron is undoubtedly willing to pay. As has become ever clearer since his speech last year, had he not promised a referendum, he would likely now no longer be leader of the Conservative Party.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Beware, hard Brexiteers - Ruth Davidson is coming for you

The Scottish Conservative leader is well-positioned to fight. 

Wanted: Charismatic leader with working-class roots and a populist touch who can take on the Brexiteers, including some in the government, and do so convincingly.

Enter Ruth Davidson. 

While many Tory MPs quietly share her opposition to a hard Brexit, those who dare to be loud tend to be backbenchers like Anna Soubry and Nicky Morgan. 

By contrast, the Scottish Conservative leader already has huge credibility for rebuilding her party north of the border. Her appearances in the last days of the EU referendum campaign made her a star in the south as well. And she has no qualms about making a joke at Boris Johnson’s expense

Speaking at the Institute of Directors on Monday, Davidson said Brexiteers like Nigel Farage should stop “needling” European leaders.

“I say to the Ukip politicians, when they chuckle and bray about the result in June, grow up,” she declared. “Let us show a bit more respect for these European neighbours and allies.”

Davidson is particularly concerned that Brexiteers underestimate the deeply emotional and political response of other EU nations. 

The negotiations will be 27 to 1, she pointed out: “I would suggest that macho, beer swilling, posturing at the golf club bar isn’t going to get us anywhere.”

At a time when free trade is increasingly a dirty word, Davidson is also striking in her defence of the single market. As a child, she recalls, every plate of food on the table was there because her father, a self-made businessman, had "made stuff and sold it abroad". 

She attacked the Daily Mail for its front cover branding the judges who ruled against the government’s bid to trigger Article 50 “enemies of the people”. 

When the headline was published, Theresa May and Cabinet ministers stressed the freedom of the press. By contrast, Davidson, a former journalist, said that to undermine “the guardians of our democracy” in this way was “an utter disgrace”. 

Davidson might have chosen Ukip and the Daily Mail to skewer, but her attacks could apply to certain Brexiteers in her party as well. 

When The Staggers enquired whether this included the Italy-baiting Foreign Secretary Johnson, she launched a somewhat muted defence.

Saying she was “surprised by the way Boris has taken to the job”, she added: “To be honest, when you have got such a big thing happening and when you have a team in place that has been doing the preparatory work, it doesn’t make sense to reshuffle the benches."

Nevertheless, despite her outsider role, the team matters to Davidson. Part of her electoral success in Scotland is down the way she has capitalised on the anti-independence feeling after the Scottish referendum. If the UK heads for a hard Brexit, she too will have to fend off accusations that her party is the party of division. 

Indeed, for all her jibes at the Brexiteers, Davidson has a serious message. Since the EU referendum, she is “beginning to see embryos of where Scotland has gone post-referendum”. And, she warned: “I do not think we want that division.”

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.