David Cameron’s EU deal gives Labour its own European dilemma

It's understandable that Labour wants to attack David Cameron's deal, but it risks strengthening the eurosceptics.


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“A Tory party drama”. This was Jeremy Corbyn’s withering assessment this afternoon of the prime minister’s draft renegotiation of the terms of the UK’s EU membership. Corbyn is right: Cameron, who eurosceptics and europhiles alike knew was never going to recommend any course of action other than remaining in the EU, only offered the referendum in 2013 to placate disgruntled backbenchers, and has been struggling to do just enough to keep them sweet ever since.

Corbyn’s response to the prime minister was one of his more effective despatch box performances, but he has his own dilemmas. The first is personal. Before his unexpected elevation to the leadership, Corbyn followed the traditional Bennite eurosceptic line. At some point during his leadership campaign Corbyn recanted that stance, and he now advocates a vote to remain in EU - as do at least a further 211 of Labour’s 231 MPs.

The more pressing difficulty for Corbyn, and one that is shared by all Labour Europhiles, is how far to attack Cameron’s renegotiation without damaging the prospects of the campaign to remain. Corbyn’s most striking line in the Commons today was that the PM had negotiated the “wrong goals, in the wrong way, for the wrong reasons”. It’s easy to see why he mounted this argument: not only will many Labour MPs and supporters agree, but more broadly it undermines the PM's competence.

Yet Labour should worry that if it spends too much time attacking Cameron’s conduct and the deal he presents to the public, the public will react in kind: by voting to bloody Cameron’s nose and leave the EU. As Stephen Bush wrote yesterday, Europhiles should already be worried that aspects of the deal are a difficult sell for the electorate. Their efforts will hardly be helped by Labour's in campaigners pooh-poohing the offer.

There is a past trauma at the heart of Labour’s approach to the EU referendum, and it’s nothing to do with Europe. The Labour Party is scarred by its experience of the Scottish referendum, where the mainstream Unionist parties united as one campaign: Better Together (or, as its opponents preferred, Project Fear). They won the referendum, but eight months later 39 Labour MPs in Scotland lost their jobs.

In the wake of Labour’s Scottish evisceration, it’s no surprise that Harriet Harman set up an independent Labour campaign to remain in the EU, under the leadership of the winsome moderate Alan Johnson. Nevertheless, there was a good reason why Better Together was created in the first place: if the various Scottish unionist parties had spent the referendum campaign squabbling amongst themselves rather than uniting to attack the nationalist argument, a confused public might have rewarded the nationalists with even more than 45 per cent of the vote.

For his part, Alan Johnson clearly understands the perils of narrowing the referendum debate into a conversation about the minutiae of David Cameron’s renegotiation. The first two sentences of an article Johnson penned in the Daily Mirror today deliberately shift the debate away from that terrain: "There will be much written about the deal the government reached with our European partners on Britain's EU membership. Whatever the details, this referendum will be about far more than any changes David Cameron manages to achieve."

Labour should follow Johnson’s lead and make a positive case for remaining in the European Union. Getting bogged down in asserting the failure of Cameron’s European diplomacy will simply encourage the public to believe that Cameron - the most prominent campaigner to remain - has failed. Corbyn had his moment lambasting Cameron in the chamber today. That was a perfectly understandable thing for the leader of the opposition to do. But Labour Europhiles must remember that they actually agree with the PM that Britain should remain in the EU. If they are truly committed to a victory for Remain, they should spend less time attacking him and more time persuading the public of the Labour case for Europe.

Henry Zeffman writes about politics and is the winner of the Anthony Howard Award 2015.