That EU vote: 6 thoughts on what it means for the Tories, Lib Dems and Labour

clegg cameron miliband116 Tory MPs last night backed an amendment to the Queen’s Speech and called for an EU referendum bill. Here’s six thoughts from me on what it all means…

This wasn’t about Europe (much): this was about Cameron’s leadership

The Tory outers/Eurosceptics had already won: David Cameron capitulated in January, conceding an in/out referendum he’d tried hard to dodge. But that wasn’t enough for them. So they forced the Tory leader to capitulate again this week, forcing him to rush out a draft Bill legislating for just such a referendum and saying he’d love to pass if it weren’t for those pesky Lib Dems. But that still wasn’t enough to appease the head-banging contingent, so he was forced to re-capitulate by offering a free vote on the not-so-rebel Baron/Bone amendment regretting the failure of the Government’s own Queen’s Speech to call for a referendum right now.

This wasn’t about a European referendum, not really. This was about Tory backbenchers rubbing the Prime Minister’s nose in it, showing him who’s boss. For all that it’s three years since the Coalition was formed, those five days in May still frame most of today’s arguments.

Tory backbenchers remain irritated that David Cameron failed to win the May 2010 election. But more than that (much more) they are irritated that he then chose to form a Coalition with the Lib Dems. The tactically shrewd thing to do, they say — and on this they’re undoubtedly right — would have been to offer a Coalition, then make conditions the Lib Dems couldn’t accept, rule for a few months as a minority government by proposing some populist Tory measures on immigration and welfare which would have been voted down, then call a second election in October 2010, and win an outright majority. The further into this parliament we get the more astounding it is that Mr Cameron didn’t go down this path.

Of course, Mr Cameron would say he was doing the right thing for the nation. Maybe. I suspect a personal desperation to get into Downing Street counted for quite a lot too. Whatever the motivation, though, the effect is the same. Right-wing Tories are blocked from pursuing the agenda they want to — and they don’t like it.

Last year, their frustration bubbled over because of Lords reform (promised in their last three manifestos as well as the Coalition Agreement, but no matter). This year it’s Europe. But ultimately it’s all about David Cameron’s two big failures: not beating Gordon Brown outright and not holding his nerve by pursuing a minority government. Too many Tories just can’t forgive him for those errors, especially now they see Ukip profiting from them.

The Conservative Party is losing its fitness to govern

It was assumed the Lib Dems would be the flaky ones in the Coalition. Far from it. The party dipped its collective hand in the blood when sealing the Coalition Agreement and there has been no attempt since then to go back on the deal. Tensions, yes. Withdrawal, never. The only serious threat to the future of the Coalition has been the result of the Tories failing to keep their side of the bargain (Lords reform), and now with their MPs beating up on their own leader.

The Tory backbenchers are unruly, which makes it difficult for the Tories to rule. Those Tory backbenchers wondering why David Cameron was so desperate to avoid leading a minority government (followed by possible a too-close-for-comfort majority after a hypothetical October 2010 election) need only look in the mirror.

Only David Cameron can win a referendum

This is the other part of the explanation for Tory MPs’ nervousness about the Prime Minister’s intentions. David Cameron has said, quite explicitly, that he wants to re-negotiate the UK’s terms and then lead a ‘Yes to the EU’ campaign. Not surprisingly, Tory ‘outers’ don’t relish that prospect.

And here’s the uncomfortable truth for those of us in the better-off-in camp: Mr Cameron is our best hope. As I’ve pointed out before, logically there is only one way to vote in 2015 if you want to be sure the UK stays in the EU: vote Tory.

The Tories’ EU obsessiveness is drowning out the relatively better economic news

This week’s news agenda has been crowded out by Tory divisions over Europe. The relatively good economic news has, as a result, received barely a hearing. Hardly a mention of recovering consumer confidence in the state of the economy. Easy to ignore the Bank of England’s revised forecast for stronger growth than previously expected. Not even time for any passing, tasteless schadenfreude that Socialist-led France has returned to recession. The Tories were just too, too busy banging on about Europe.

(To be clear: the UK’s economic growth is still likely to be anaemic. That the news is hailed as good says more about how low our expectations now are. However, the plain political fact remains the Government will now claim credit for an economy fumbling its way towards growth.)

The Lib Dem position is consistent and right (doesn’t make it easy to defend)

The Lib Dems have stuck to our guns: an in/out referendum the next time there’s a major treaty. That was the party’s view five years ago when Lisbon was being debated. It was the party’s manifesto commitment in 2010. And it is now Coalition Government policy.

None of which makes it easy to defend, though. The Tories say we should ask the people now: and we’re saying not yet. Tough sell. But when politicians avoid the easy choice (in this case conceding a referendum) it’s actually worth asking why. The answer’s clear: we don’t yet know what shape or form the EU will take once the Eurozone crisis is resolved (which may happen peaceably or messily). Ask the question now and you may end up having to ask it again in three years’ time.

Credit to Ed Miliband: he’s got this big call right (but will he stick to it?)

Ed Miliband could’ve done a John Smith this week: used clever, lawyerly parliamentary tactics to cause maximum mayhem for the Government. He didn’t. Critics will say it’s because Labour’s unsure what its policy should be on a referendum. There’s clearly an element of truth in that. But the bigger truth, I suspect, is that Mr Miliband knows for sure what he wants to avoid: saddling himself with the promise of a referendum which could tie any future Labour government up in knots on an issue they don’t care that much about.

Commit to an in/out referendum now, and if he wins in 2015 the Labour leader will have to invest huge political capital fighting for UK membership of the EU against a hostile right-wing press and a new Tory leader who will, almost certainly, be an ‘outer’. Chances are he’d lose. Ed Miliband can see that unalluring prospect and is desperate to avoid it, rightly. Whether he can withstand the pressure to cave between now and the next election is another matter though.

* Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

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  • Gareth Wilson 16th May '13 - 10:02am

    @ Caracatus

    The political advantage is its causing mayhem in the Tory party and resulted in a new right wing party coming to prominence which could weaken the tory party forever. Blocking a referendum could result in a 4 party race at the next election, more chance of a hung parliament and much more chance of a new coalition. Who would labour/tories prefer to partner with, the Lib Dems or UKIP?

  • Excellent article. It appears that James Wharton MP will be bringing forward a Private Member’s Bill, and the Tories will apply a 3 line whip. Assuming (and clearly this is up for debate) that it is killed by the Labour and Lib Dems, this sets a precedent that either coalition party can be whipped in favour of a PMB which is party policy not coalition policy.

    So what’s to stop either a Lib Dem MP (step forward Robert Smith, #9 in the ballot) or a Labour MP putting forward a PMB for a mansion tax, with Lib Dems whipped to support? Unlike on the EU referendum bill there would likely be a parliamentary majority. The Tories would, rightly, be mad, but it would be entirely consistent with what they are now saying is acceptable in whipping a PMB not agreed by coalition.

  • Gareth Wilson 16th May '13 - 11:39am


    Interesting premise, by setting a precedent the tories could open the door to legislation they don’t agree with via PMB. More and more likely to happen the closer we get to an election..

  • The problem with all that’s going on in politics right now is that the voters by and large understand none of it. They just know they are hurting; those that caused the hurt are getting away with it; there are massive cockups in the way policy is being put into practice; and the mainstream politicians are just dedicated to silly squabbling. Step forward ‘ straight talking common sense’ from Farage. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard that – or similar in small shops. We in the political interest sphere know perfectly well that straight talking common sense is NOT what comes from Farage’s lips but In their desperation to hear some sort of clear message voters don’t want to believe that .

    Stephens analysis of Cameron failing to win outright in 2010 & not having the ‘courage’ to call a second election rather than get into bed with the hated LibDems being the real source of Tory unrest is spot on.

  • James Hardy 16th May '13 - 1:10pm

    Gareth Wilson & tpfkar, I would dearly love to see some progressive idea being promoted by Labour and the Lib-Dems in one of these private members bill. The #2 on the list is Paul Blomfield, chair of Labour for Democracy – which is supposed to be an organisation within Labour that promotes working with other parties, so I hope he steps up and comes up with a bill that would gain the support of both parties and enough of the other MPs to pass. This could show that as a party we are not “drifting to the right” but merely happen to currently be working with a party of the right.

    I also wish that the senior party members would stop the constant Labour bashing, it looks petty and we may need to work with these people in a couple of years, it is a bad idea to burn all our bridges

  • Mack(Not a Lib Dem) 16th May '13 - 1:32pm

    The Tories are in complete disarray over Europe. The Coalition is completely devided over Europe. The country cannot tolerate years of uncertainty about whether there will be an EU Referendum. Uncertainty will prevent major companies investing in Britain and that will inhibit the growth of jobs. Lack of jobs mean that growth will remain stagnant. The 2011 Parliament Act allows for the dissolution of Parliament and an immediate General Election if two thirds of the House of Commons vote for it. Now is the time for Labour to move a motion to dissolve parliament and have that General Election. Given the number of Tory rebels and others’ disatisfaction with the coalition it should be possible to achieve the necessary majority and the motion will be passed. The only way to deal with an intolerable situation which is debilitating for our politics and seriously jeopardising this country’s economy is to lance the boil now. Let the parties allow the electorate to decide on a settled policy for our continued membersihp of Europe . We cannot allow this crisis to paralyse our politics until 2015.

  • James Hardy 16th May '13 - 2:16pm

    Mack, I don’t think your maths is right

    Even if Ed Milliband persuaded every sitting member on the opposition benches (280 excluding deputy speakers and Sinn Fein), and all the Tories that voted for the amendment (116) that parliament should be dissolved, then he would still be 38 short of the required 434 votes (2/3 of the 650 members).

    The fact is that persuading a lot of these people to vote for an early dissolution would be as hard as persuading turkeys to vote for Christmas. The Tories and the Lib Dems are doing poorly in the polls and most would not welcome a new general election, they are hoping the country turns around by 2015 and they will have a chance. I know the Tories are divided, but surely most would prefer to be under a Tory PM they dislike than be under a Tory Leader of the Opposition with Ed Milliband in Number 10.

  • nuclear cockroach 16th May '13 - 7:25pm

    “As I’ve pointed out before, logically there is only one way to vote in 2015 if you want to be sure the UK stays in the EU: vote Tory. ”

    I think you’ve been smoking too much Moroccan there.

  • Brilliant article. Particularly agree with your first-point … let’us all thank God that he did not go that minority route … we would have been all suffering under an unmitigated Tory government following a late 2010 subsequent election.

  • Simon Banks 17th May '13 - 8:51am

    If the Tories had opened negotiations with us in 2010 but set conditions we couldn’t accept, the result would not necessarily have been a Tory minority government. Even Nick Clegg would have been seriously peeved and the result might well have been a Labour-led minority government, with or without coalition with us. True, the likely consequence would have been a Tory outright majority at the next election (unless Labour were frightened enough to do a deal on PR with no referendum), but knowledge of the likely consequences of an early election might well have kept the show on the road for two years or more, in which time Cameron might well have been executed for failing to win power. So his odd choice may not have been quite so odd.

  • nuclear cockroach 17th May '13 - 3:22pm

    Overheard on the Underground:

    Florid Gent: Hey, so where do you come from?

    Tourist: Switzerland.

    Florid Gent: Brilliant. Our country will soon be joining you outside of the European Union.

    Tourist: Well, a lot of actually want to join the European Union.

    Florid Gent: (turns purple and sputters)

  • Matthew Huntbach 18th May '13 - 1:26pm

    I think we need to be absolutely clear on this, we need to go out and say it again and again and again, and say it VERY LOUD: the European Union is NOT the cause of this country’s problems, pulling out of the EU will not help this country, and most of all, this anti-EU hysteria is a trick by the political right to turn attention away from the real problem, which is the failure of THEIR economic theories. I don’t see anyone at the top of the LibDems saying this, at least not in words which are blunt enough to get the message across to all those people who have been tricked into voting UKIP and who have not realised what they’ve been tricked into voting for is a party just like the Conservative Party but even more right-wing in every aspect, including and especially its wish for control of our country to be passed away to the global financial elite.

    We should be going out and saying this on every street corner. We should be telling people they have been fooled by right-wing politician and by a right-wing press who do NOT hav e their interests at heart. I am confident we will be listened to if we have the guts to do this. I am certain in myself that most people who say they want to pull the UK out of the EU have almost no idea what the EU does, and what control it exerts over their lives. If it was the dictatorial monster that the right-wing press tells them it is, wouldn’t they be clear on this? The fact they don’t know is what shows they have been fooled.

    I am not saying in this that the EU is perfect. Of course there are many ways it could be improved, though I am a little sceptical of those (sadly including some at the top of our party) for who “improvement” seems to mean stopping what it is doing to combat international finance playing one country against another by making a common stand on issues such as the right not to be forced to work excessive hours. However, we should not allow the political right to get away with their usual line of accusing anyone who is not anti-EU of being mad idealists who thin everythng about it is wonderful.

    The point we should then be making is that the hysteria which has been whipped up means now is the wrong time for an in-out referendum, because there will not be a balanced campaign, people will not be voting on the facts. We should acknowledge that many people are voting UKIP or sympathising with its anti-EU line really as a sort of act of despair rather than out of careful consideration of all it involves. The reality is that there are no easy answers to the mess this country is in. People should not let themselves get pushed into thinking pulling out of the EU is one just on some sort of whim.

  • Martin Lowe 18th May '13 - 5:28pm

    @Nuclear Cockroach:

    I did laugh at your story, and I’d love to believe it – but the concept of strangers talking on the London Underground is too good to be true.

  • Stephen Tall reiterates the tired old chestnut about how clever we were to agree Coalition and how tactically inept Cameron was to offer it. No doubt many Lib Dems will believe it, because they desperately want to believe it. So much better than having to admit that we made a disastrous mistake, abandoned our principles, let down the nation, caused immense harm, and got screwed by the Tories.

    Tall’s new argument seems to be that the rise of Euroscepticsm in the Tory party somehow proves that Cameron got his tactics wrong. On the contrary, it shows he got his tactics right. Without the Lib Dems on his side, Cameron would have been walked over by his Eurosceptic b@stards much earlier and much more comprehensively. So – Cameron got a desperately needed deal out of Clegg. Even more shameful, then, that we got so little in return.

  • nuclear cockroach 19th May '13 - 3:31pm

    @Martin Lowe

    All true, despite any Trappist vows undertaken by those travelling on the Underground.

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