Nigel Farage, pictured during the Newark by-election. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Ukip still claim Labour will promise an EU referendum - but what if they're wrong?

Farage needs to explain why he could prevent the referendum he has always wanted. 

Ukip may no longer be a single-issue party, but it still has a defining cause: the withdrawal of Britain from the European Union. Twenty years after it was founded, David Cameron finally gave the party what it wanted last year: a promise of an in/out referendum.

The PM’s pledge created an awkward question for Nigel Farage: why, if you want a vote so badly, are you helping to stop the Tories (who have promised one), rather than Labour (who haven’t), winning the general election? As is well known, despite Farage’s protestations to the contrary, Ukip draws nearly half of its support from 2010 Conservative voters. The divided right, combined with a more unified left, could gift Ed Miliband the keys to Downing Street.

To this, Farage had a simple reply: after the European elections, and Ukip’s victory, Labour, too, would be forced to promise a referendum. He said in April: "The way to get a referendum on Europe is to beat Labour in May and force Ed Miliband to promise a vote on Europe if he becomes Prime Minister. If both the big parties promise a referendum, we should get one. That's why all our concentration is on Labour in the next few weeks."

The elections came, and Ukip triumphed, but Miliband did not waver. Rather than matching Cameron’s pledge (as some on his own side demanded), he maintained that a Labour government would only hold a referendum in the unlikely event of a further transfer of powers to Brussels. Miliband, who rightly believes that he has a good chance of becoming prime minister, is not prepared to allow the opening years of his premiership to be dominated by a vote that he would struggle to win, and that could force his resignation. For a guaranteed referendum, the public will have to back the Tories.

So what does Ukip say now? When I asked a spokesman earlier today, I was told: 

Labour have a near blank manifesto, and as the general election fast approaches, we expect their stance on the EU will change as their hopes of an overall majority continue to fall apart. Just like the Conservatives they are haemorrhaging votes to Ukip. The wise decision would therefore surely be to offer a referendum.

In fact, as I’ve argued before, there are many more reasons for Labour not to offer one, but leave that aside; the question Ukip must answer is: "what if you’re wrong?" Unlike Cameron, Miliband does not lurch, he does not U-turn. When a stance is adopted, typically in the form of a detailed speech, it is maintained. With Labour far more united than the Tories on Europe (a reversal of the situation in 1975), there is no prospect of Miliband coming under comparable internal pressure to Cameron.

The answer to that question was provided in the second half of the spokesman’s response: "The only reason the Tories are even discussing a referendum is due the threat of Ukip. However nobody else can be trusted on this issue. Both coalition partners went into the election promising a referendum, yet when the government came together the Lib Dems blamed the small print of their leaflet for withdrawing the offer and Cameron showed that his cast-iron guarantee was also just hot air. The only way to get anything other than an empty promise on the EU is to vote Ukip."

Based on Cameron’s past failure to deliver a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty (after it was approved by EU member states before the Tories entered office in 2010), Ukip argue that he can’t be trusted this time round. It is precisely to counter such claims that Cameron has vowed to resign as prime minister if he is unable to deliver a vote on EU membership. Such is the (understandable) cynicism of the electorate, that even this may not be enough. But as the general election approaches, there are at least some Ukip voters who will ask why the party is scuppering their chance to have their say in 2017. If he is to retain their support, Farage needs to come up with a better answer soon.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The 11 things we know after the Brexit plan debate

Labour may just have fallen into a trap. 

On Wednesday, both Labour and Tory MPs filed out of the Commons together to back a motion calling on the Prime Minister to commit to publish the government’s Brexit plan before Article 50 is triggered in March 2017. 

The motion was proposed by Labour, but the government agreed to back it after inserting its own amendment calling on MPs to “respect the wishes of the United Kingdom” and adhere to the original timetable. 

With questions on everything from the customs union to the Northern Irish border, it is clear that the Brexit minister David Davis will have a busy Christmas. Meanwhile, his declared intention to stay schtum about the meat of Brexit negotiations for now means the nation has been hanging off every titbit of news, including a snapped memo reading “have cake and eat it”. 

So, with confusion abounding, here is what we know from the Brexit plan debate: 

1. The government will set out a Brexit plan before triggering Article 50

The Brexit minister David Davis said that Parliament will get to hear the government’s “strategic plans” ahead of triggering Article 50, but that this will not include anything that will “jeopardise our negotiating position”. 

While this is something of a victory for the Remain MPs and the Opposition, the devil is in the detail. For example, this could still mean anything from a white paper to a brief description released days before the March deadline.

2. Parliament will get a say on converting EU law into UK law

Davis repeated that the Great Repeal Bill, which scraps the European Communities Act 1972, will be presented to the Commons during the two-year period following Article 50.

He said: “After that there will be a series of consequential legislative measures, some primary, some secondary, and on every measure the House will have a vote and say.”

In other words, MPs will get to debate how existing EU law is converted to UK law. But, crucially, that isn’t the same as getting to debate the trade negotiations. And the crucial trade-off between access to the single market versus freedom of movement is likely to be decided there. 

3. Parliament is almost sure to get a final vote on the Brexit deal

The European Parliament is expected to vote on the final Brexit deal, which means the government accepts it also needs parliamentary approval. Davis said: “It is inconceivable to me that if the European Parliament has a vote, this House does not.”

Davis also pledged to keep MPs as well-informed as MEPs will be.

However, as shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer pointed out to The New Statesman, this could still leave MPs facing the choice of passing a Brexit deal they disagree with or plunging into a post-EU abyss. 

4. The government still plans to trigger Article 50 in March

With German and French elections planned for 2017, Labour MP Geraint Davies asked if there was any point triggering Article 50 before the autumn. 

But Davis said there were 15 elections scheduled during the negotiation process, so such kind of delay was “simply not possible”. 

5. Themed debates are a clue to Brexit priorities

One way to get a measure of the government’s priorities is the themed debates it is holding on various areas covered by EU law, including two already held on workers’ rights and transport.  

Davis mentioned themed debates as a key way his department would be held to account. 

It's not exactly disclosure, but it is one step better than relying on a camera man papping advisers as they walk into No.10 with their notes on show. 

6. The immigration policy is likely to focus on unskilled migrants

At the Tory party conference, Theresa May hinted at a draconian immigration policy that had little time for “citizens of the world”, while Davis said the “clear message” from the Brexit vote was “control immigration”.

He struck a softer tone in the debate, saying: “Free movement of people cannot continue as it is now, but this will not mean pulling up the drawbridge.”

The government would try to win “the global battle for talent”, he added. If the government intends to stick to its migration target and, as this suggests, will keep the criteria for skilled immigrants flexible, the main target for a clampdown is clearly unskilled labour.  

7. The government is still trying to stay in the customs union

Pressed about the customs union by Anna Soubry, the outspoken Tory backbencher, Davis said the government is looking at “several options”. This includes Norway, which is in the single market but not the customs union, and Switzerland, which is in neither but has a customs agreement. 

(For what it's worth, the EU describes this as "a series of bilateral agreements where Switzerland has agreed to take on certain aspects of EU legislation in exchange for accessing the EU's single market". It also notes that Swiss exports to the EU are focused on a few sectors, like chemicals, machinery and, yes, watches.)

8. The government wants the status quo on security

Davis said that on security and law enforcement “our aim is to preserve the current relationship as best we can”. 

He said there is a “clear mutual interest in continued co-operation” and signalled a willingness for the UK to pitch in to ensure Europe is secure across borders. 

One of the big tests for this commitment will be if the government opts into Europol legislation which comes into force next year.

9. The Chancellor is wooing industries

Robin Walker, the under-secretary for Brexit, said Philip Hammond and Brexit ministers were meeting organisations in the City, and had also met representatives from the aerospace, energy, farming, chemicals, car manufacturing and tourism industries. 

However, Labour has already attacked the government for playing favourites with its secretive Nissan deal. Brexit ministers have a fine line to walk between diplomacy and what looks like a bribe. 

10. Devolved administrations are causing trouble

A meeting with leaders of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland ended badly, with the First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon publicly declaring it “deeply frustrating”. The Scottish government has since ramped up its attempts to block Brexit in the courts. 

Walker took a more conciliatory tone, saying that the PM was “committed to full engagement with the devolved administrations” and said he undertook the task of “listening to the concerns” of their representatives. 

11. Remain MPs may have just voted for a trap

Those MPs backing Remain were divided on whether to back the debate with the government’s amendment, with the Green co-leader Caroline Lucas calling it “the Tories’ trap”.

She argued that it meant signing up to invoking Article 50 by March, and imposing a “tight timetable” and “arbitrary deadline”, all for a vaguely-worded Brexit plan. In the end, Lucas was one of the Remainers who voted against the motion, along with the SNP. 

George agrees – you can read his analysis of the Brexit trap here

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.