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With a bit of chutzpah, Miliband could rip the Tories in half over the EU. Does he dare?

The idea of tabling an amendment to the Tory bill demanding a referendum before the next election is gaining currency in Labour ranks.

The Labour Party has a clear policy on European referendums. It doesn’t mind them in theory but avoids them in practice. That is the formula that emerged over 13 years in government, when Tony Blair contemplated joining the euro and Gordon Brown signed the Lisbon Treaty. Now it shapes Ed Miliband’s response to David Cameron’s plan for a vote on Britain’s EU membership – under renegotiated terms – in 2017.

The Labour leader has not ruled out a referendum but he says the Prime Minister’s timing is wrong. Careless talk of leaving the EU casts uncertainty over the economy and deters investment. Privately, Miliband’s allies add that, if he wins an election, he will have better things to do than honour a pledge made by a weak Tory leader fending off backbench rebellion.

There is a cautious logic to that position but it lacks the political bite of simplicity. Keeping options open looks cagey. It has helped Labour that its position is echoed by the Liberal Democrats but Nick Clegg’s tune is changing. He now says it is a matter of “when, not if” the in/out question is asked. Senior Lib Dem advisers accept that the party is bound to end up with a referendum in its 2015 manifesto.

Meanwhile, Downing Street is supporting a backbench bill that would fix Cameron’s proposed 2017 vote in law. It is a cynical act whose purpose is served as well by defeat as by victory. The Tory leadership just wants to hold the debate so it can cast Labour – and the Lib Dems, if they take Miliband’s side – as credulous fanciers of the status quo.

There is growing concern on the Labour side that this charge will stick. Influential figures in the shadow cabinet – the shadow chancellor, Ed Balls; Jon Cruddas, the head of Labour’s policy review; Jim Murphy, the shadow defence secretary – question the wisdom of standing as the only party that doesn’t trust the public. Douglas Alexander, the shadow foreign secretary, was firmly against matching Cameron’s pledge when it was announced in January but is not wedded to the anti-referendum line. Miliband’s aides give conflicting counsel.

One of the more persuasive arguments for changing course comes from pro-Europeans who want to dispel the miasma of elitism that clings to their cause. A familiar pattern has people who want to leave the EU demanding a vote and people who want to stay resisting one, which makes it look as if the Europhiles expect to lose. Many do. The “in” crowd is infected with defeatism born of despair at public ignorance. That attitude cedes control of the debate to the sceptics and makes credible their charge that Brussels is defended only by the out-of-touch. This process has gone on for so long that pro-Europeans will have to take up the referendum challenge just to be heard.

If the Labour leader is minded to grab any gauntlets, his deadline is 5 July, when the Tory referendum bill will be debated. One idea gaining currency in the opposition ranks is that an amendment could be tabled demanding a referendum before the next election. This U-turn could, with a bit of chutzpah, be squared with Miliband’s previously stated reservations. The argument would go roughly as follows: Cameron is the hostage of his party’s right wing. He cannot say what powers he would “repatriate” from Brussels, because he knows that the Europhobe ultras will tolerate no compromise. Renegotiation is a ploy and it isn’t working. Everyone agrees on the need for EU reform but it requires diplomacy, while we have a prime minister who can only stumble blindly after Ukip and towards the exit. Sadly, then, the case for ending uncertainty now demands prompter resolution of the basic question: does Britain want European co-operation or not? In or out?

It is a move that could throw the Tories into turmoil. Cameron would have to vote against a referendum or call one on Miliband’s terms. Either way, the Conservatives would be ripped in half. The danger for Labour would be looking too gleefully motivated by the hope of engineering government chaos. As one senior strategist says, mulling the gambit, “We’d have to neutralise some of the charge of opportunism.”

Then there is the matter of Miliband volunteering to front a “Yes to EU” campaign either just before or shortly after a general election. If he looks queasy in that role, he and Britain’s EU membership are surely sunk. The strongest preference among Labour’s referendum agnostics – the largest constituency – is for a leader who will pick a position, any position, and sell it with conviction.

There is a principled line against a referendum. Miliband could reject populism and make a virtue of refusing to dance the Farage fandango. Let the Tories feud on the fringes, he could say, while Labour prepares for government. There is also the principled stance that Europhobia jeopardises Britain’s national interest. A new mandate for engagement is needed and pro-Europeans are not afraid of the fight. On the referendum question, “Bring it on!” has more campaigning vim than “Not today, thank you”.

Miliband has two possible paths to the moral high ground. He can fight for the small right of politicians not to climb on referendum bandwagons but that makes it harder to fight for the bigger cause, which is saving British membership of the EU. The Labour leader will spend a lot of time over the next two years defending one of those positions. He needs to decide which battle he relishes more.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 03 June 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Power Christians