Labour’s position on staging a referendum on EU membership is in confusion, with conflicting signals from the party’s hierarchy.
Ed Miliband mounted a scathing attack on David Cameron, claiming the Prime Minister was taking a “huge gamble” designed to keep his fractious party together.
But the Labour leader was also put under pressure over his attitude, three times sidestepping challenges from Mr Cameron over where he stood. On the fourth occasion Mr Miliband seemed to create a clear dividing-line with the Tories as he told MPs: “My position is no, we do not want an in/out referendum.”
The Tories immediately seized on the comment, with party chairman Grant Shapps saying it was proof “Labour doesn’t trust the British public to have their say on their country’s future”.
Mr Miliband’s aides later briefed that he was not ruling out holding a vote under any future circumstances, but believed it would create unnecessary economic uncertainty at the moment. They said he was not excluding the possibility of including a referendum in the next election manifesto.
Then the shadow Foreign Secretary, Douglas Alexander, sought to clarify the position, insisting Labour had “never said never” to a referendum, but did not think it was right to promise one now.
Mr Cameron’s announcement fuelled Coalition tensions with the Liberal Democrats. The Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, echoed Labour’s position as he argued that the prospect of a referendum was “not in the national interest” because of the potential impact on the economy. Recovery would be made “all the harder if we have years of grinding uncertainty because of an ill-defined, protracted renegotiation of Britain’s status within the European Union”.
Ukip believes it has obtained a new platform for pressing its demands for leaving the EU. Its leader, Nigel Farage, said: “No longer can the case for British withdrawal be confined to the margins.”