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Lib Dem decision not to guarantee EU referendum offers relief for Labour

Miliband's party will not be left as the only one that "doesn't trust the people".

Miliband's party will not be cast as the only one that "doesn't trust the people".
Nick Clegg speaks with Douglas Alexander and Ed Miliband before Angela Merkel addresses both Houses of Parliament. Photograph: Getty Images.

After recent murmurings that the Lib Dems could come out in favour of a guaranteed in/out EU referendum, there is relief among Labour that Nick Clegg has resolved not to do so. At a meeting of the parliamentary party last night, Lib Dem MPs agreed that the party would stick to its current stance of only holding a vote in the event of a further transfer of powers to Brussels. Tim Farron on the left and Jeremy Browne on the right were among those arguing for a referendum, but Clegg prevailed.

Had the Deputy PM changed his stance, it would have been harder for Ed Miliband to defend his refusal to promise a referendum, with Labour cast as the only party that "doesn't trust the people". Now, with both parties committed to only holding a vote if more sovereignty is passed to the EU, they will be able to team up to present Cameron's arbitrary timetable as a threat to business and to the national interest.

But while the Lib Dems have moved away from a referendum, Unite has moved towards one. The trade union's executive has warned that Labour's failure to support one is "likely to be an electoral millstone", arrguing that "the issue can never be resolved except on the basis of a clear democratic mandate". A motion on the issue will be voted on at the Unite conference in Liverpool today. But while the union's move will embolden those in Labour who have long argued for a referendum, such as Tom Watson and Keith Vaz, there is no prospect of Miliband changing his stance. As I have outlined before, the Labour leader believes that a guaranteed vote is wrong in both principle and practice, and is not prepared to risk the opening years of his government being dominated by an issue that could result in a premiership-ending defeat.

One remaining nuance that separates the Lib Dems' stance from that of Labour is that Clegg believes the conditions for a referendum are likely to be met in the next parliament. Miliband, however, does not. Expect this subtle but important difference to receive more attention as the future of Britain's EU membership comes under ever-greater scrutiny.