Today’s PMQs was a preview of the arguments over the EU that will be had repeatedly between now and the 2015 election. Ed Miliband accused David Cameron of condemning Britain to “five years of uncertainty” by promising a referendum in the next parliament and of hanging a “closed for business” over the country. In response, Cameron falsely claimed that the choice at the next election would be between a party that wants to keep Britain out of the single currency and one that wants to take us in. Ed Balls, for instance, has said that “there’s no possibility anytime in my lifetime of a British government joining the euro”. But Cameron was on stronger ground when he declared that Miliband “doesn’t believe the people should be given a choice”. It is hard to see how Labour will be able to avoid making some kind of referendum pledge before the next election.
While Cameron’s promise to give the voters a say hands him a major advantage over his opponent, Miliband unsettled the Prime Minister with several well-chosen questions. Asked whether he would allow cabinet ministers to campaign for EU withdrawal during the referendum campaign (an issue I looked at earlier this week), as Harold Wilson did in 1975, Cameron simply ignored the question. But he will need to have an answer ready when he takes questions from the media after his speech on Friday.
Reminding MPs that William Hague had previously argued against an immediate in/out referendum on the grounds that it would create too much “economic uncertainty”, Miliband defined Cameron’s position as “an in/out referendum now would be destabilising but one in five years time is fine for the country”. Challenged to say which powers (if any) Labour would seek to repatriate, Miliband was cheered by his MPs as he declared: “the biggest change we need in Europe is to move from austerity to growth and jobs”.
The Tories are confident that the public are on their side, with some hopeful that the party will receive a poll bost from Cameron’s speech. The PM declared that political parties could “sit back, do nothing and tell the public to go hang” or stand up for “the national interest”. But Miliband was surely right when he said that while Cameron may hope his Europe problems are over they are, in fact, “just beginning”. The danger for Cameron remains that the gap between what Tory MPs want from a renegotiation and what he can deliver is so great that he has set himself up for failure. The advantage he has is that this will not become a problem until after the next election. As a holding strategy, Cameron’s is not a bad one.