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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Tom Watson rouses Labour's conference as he comes out fighting

The party's deputy leader exhilarated delegates with his paean to the Blair and Brown years. 

Tom Watson is down but not out. After Jeremy Corbyn's second landslide victory, and weeks of threats against his position, Labour's deputy leader could have played it safe. Instead, he came out fighting. 

With Corbyn seated directly behind him, he declared: "I don't know why we've been focusing on what was wrong with the Blair and Brown governments for the last six years. But trashing our record is not the way to enhance our brand. We won't win elections like that! And we need to win elections!" As Watson won a standing ovation from the hall and the platform, the Labour leader remained motionless. When a heckler interjected, Watson riposted: "Jeremy, I don't think she got the unity memo." Labour delegates, many of whom hail from the pre-Corbyn era, lapped it up.

Though he warned against another challenge to the leader ("we can't afford to keep doing this"), he offered a starkly different account of the party's past and its future. He reaffirmed Labour's commitment to Nato ("a socialist construct"), with Corbyn left isolated as the platform applauded. The only reference to the leader came when Watson recalled his recent PMQs victory over grammar schools. There were dissenting voices (Watson was heckled as he praised Sadiq Khan for winning an election: "Just like Jeremy Corbyn!"). But one would never have guessed that this was the party which had just re-elected Corbyn. 

There was much more to Watson's speech than this: a fine comic riff on "Saturday's result" (Ed Balls on Strictly), a spirited attack on Theresa May's "ducking and diving; humming and hahing" and a cerebral account of the automation revolution. But it was his paean to Labour history that roused the conference as no other speaker has. 

The party's deputy channelled the spirit of both Hugh Gaitskell ("fight, and fight, and fight again to save the party we love") and his mentor Gordon Brown (emulating his trademark rollcall of New Labour achivements). With his voice cracking, Watson recalled when "from the sunny uplands of increasing prosperity social democratic government started to feel normal to the people of Britain". For Labour, a party that has never been further from power in recent decades, that truly was another age. But for a brief moment, Watson's tubthumper allowed Corbyn's vanquished opponents to relive it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.