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Labour's referendum u-turn is looking ever more likely

Many opposition MPs are persuaded by the case for making a virtue of necessity: resolve the issue and expose Tory divisions.

Labour front bench watch Ed Miliband speak
Waiting for the leader to make the call. Source: Getty

One consequence of Labour’s great frothy row over trade union influence is that yesterday’s parliamentary parade of Europhobia was bumped down the news agenda.

The vote on the first reading of a private member’s bill calling for an in/out referendum on EU membership was numerically if not politically rather dramatic. It was carried by 304 votes to nil. That means there will be another reading. So the charade gets to be played through another round. These bills become law extremely rarely and this one in particular proposes legislating for something that would happen after the next election, thereby binding a future parliament, which is constitutionally impossible.

The real point of the exercise is to give Conservative MPs the chance to boast to their constituents that they voted for a referendum in parliament and that Labour didn’t. This, it is hoped, will reinforce the message that the only way to get a say in whether Britain stays in the EU or not is to vote Tory. A vote for Ukip, say anxious Conservatives, is a de facto vote for Ed Miliband. Tory MPs report that this line is proving effective in their local associations. The threat of letting in Labour is the standard way to put a stop to harangues about Europe, gay marriage and all the other things that local Tory members harangue their MPs about.

So some Tories might be disappointed that their legislative stunt was poorly reported yesterday. (Although they won’t be sorry it was bumped in order to make way for lavish reporting of Labour disarray.) Besides, the spectacle of hundreds of Tories packing one side of the Commons chamber while the other one was entirely empty did reinforce the impression that this is a peculiar Tory obsession rather than a moment of great national significance. The mood around parliament in the run-up to the vote felt, in Tory quarters, like the anticipation of a stag party – lots of very hearty, cheery men all feeling immensely bullish and chummy in shared anti-Brussels spirit. If the Conservatives bottled that scent and released it to a wider audience I suspect it would not act as an electoral aphrodisiac.

Meanwhile, many Tories are wondering why Labour has not matched their referendum pledge. Just as many presume they will, and wonder when. (I’ve dealt with the question of whether they should and why they don’t want to here and here.) My sense of the mood in the opposition ranks is that the referendum u-turn has become inevitable. It is still possible to find Labour MPs who vigorously hate the idea, but fewer and fewer think it can be avoided. For that reason, the balance of power is shifting towards those who say the best thing to do is try to divide the Tories by calling for an in/out vote this side of a general election. Then, if it happens, Cameron – who ultimately wants to preserve EU membership – will campaign on the opposite side to many of his members, which could be problematic for party unity.

If Labour did go for that gambit they would certainly have support among hard core eurosceptic Tories. I spoke to one fairly moderate (but sometimes rebellious) Conservative recently who said quite casually that the Eurosceptics would “bank” yesterday’s vote and come back for more. Their plan too is to try to bring the referendum date forward.

Meanwhile, one idea floating around the Labour side is to aim for a referendum on the same day as the 2015 general election. The appeal here is that you get a higher turnout of what one advocate of the plan calls “normal, sensible people” which raises the chances of an “in” vote. And, of course, the Tories have to fight a general election campaign while splitting down the middle on a referendum campaign. Not that the decision is Labour’s to make, but as a plan it has the double virtues of clarity and strategic guile – commodities that have seemed in short supply on the opposition front benches of late. Ed Miliband might be tempted to go for it just because it would get people talking about divisions on the Tory side again instead of his own fracturing party.