There are two very good reasons David Cameron didn’t want the Tories endlessly to bang on about Europe. First, because most of the public just aren’t that interested. Secondly, because the Tories are irreconcilably split on the issue and not even a referendum will settle matters.
That’s why for seven years as Tory leader Cameron tried to quell discussion, and then when that failed sought to steer a mid-course with gestures of Euroscepticism, such as December 2011’s faux-veto. In the end, he couldn’t hold out any longer. The in/out EU referendum is the price he’s paid for his failure to win the 2010 election outright; this is the Tory right’s payback.
Yesterday’s speech and its promise of an in/out EU referendum was Cameron’s attempt to turn this weakness into a strength. On its own terms, it’s worked. Tory MPs and the right-wing press are united in their praise of him. They know it won’t last. It can’t. Fundamentally, David Cameron wants to keep the UK in the EU — or at least ensure he’s not the Prime Minister who takes the UK out of the EU, which amounts to pretty much the same thing — while a sizeable and growing minority of Tories want out and beggar the consequences.
Clegg and Miliband’s Hobson’s Choice
But ‘The Speech’ was enough to deflect right-wing attacks away from their leader and towards the Lib Dems and Labour. Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband are now both under pressure to match David Cameron’s pledge, and commit themselves to giving the people a say on Europe. Their response is essentially the same (though Clegg’s articulated it far more adeptly, as we saw yesterday): We think a referendum is a complete distraction. He can bang on about Europe all he wants. I’m going to keep my focus 100% on the economy.
The easiest thing both could do right now is concede the ground to Cameron. It would draw the sting from the issue and Tories might turn in on themselves once again. When politicians reject the easy option, sensible people ask why.
Miliband, in particular, has every reason not to get dragged into a fight which will be held on the Tory right’s ground. He could be Prime Minister in a little over two years’ time. He will inherit a weak economy, growing debt, years of austerity ahead, and impossible demands from the trade unions and his own party. Why add needless strife abroad to that list?
There will be a bigger tactical worry. If Labour commits to an in/out referendum now and if the party wins in 2015, it will be down to Miliband to negotiate the new terms. By that time, Cameron will be gone and the Tories will be led by someone yet more Eurosceptic. Chances are that — even if Miliband succeeded in such talks beyond even Cameron’s current wildest dreams — a post-2015 Tory party will take the opportunity to campaign against a Miliband-led ‘Yes’, arguing that he’s failed to win the repatriation of powers that would make continuing British membership acceptable. If the Tories (and the press) were to campaign for a ‘No’, the chances of the UK staying in Europe are much more finely balanced. If he lost the referendum, Miliband’s premiership might be over before it’s even begun.
Why ‘wait and see’ won’t work. Probably.
Under the circumstances, Miliband’s decision not to leap on board Cameron’s in/out bandwagon is entirely understandable. It may not be enough to save him, though.
First, he’ll have to navigate the next two years of being asked constantly, ‘Why won’t you let the British people have a say?’ Even though most of the British people aren’t all that fussed about the issue, appearing not to trust them to make the choice isn’t a good look for an opposition leader. Secondly, Cameron’s commitment to re-negotiation puts him on the front foot: unlike Miliband he won’t be waiting around passively for the next treaty to come along to argue for British interests. And thirdly, if there is to be another treaty in the next 5 years (and the Eurozone turmoil makes that more likely than not) Miliband will still have to let the public decide anyway, having now accepted the Coalition’s referendum lock.
This scenario leads to only one logical, if at-first-sight perverse, conclusion for those of us who want to see the UK remain in the European Union: to wish David Cameron every success in his negotiations with his 26 fellow European leaders. Quite simply, he’s the political leader who’s best placed to win an in/out referendum for the ‘Yes’ campaign.
* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.