Will Ed win this EU battle, but lose the war?

Without Labour or Lib Dem participation, the vote on a referendum this Friday will be a farce - but , eventually, Miliband must decide one way or the other

Share

Let us praise Ed Miliband. This is micro-politics, a bit of Jane Austen’s ivory, two inches wide, worked with the fine brush of Westminster procedure, but the Labour leader has managed to neutralise for the moment the larger threat of Europe. This Friday, there will be a vote in the House of Commons on a private member’s Bill introduced by James Wharton, the young Conservative MP for Stockton South. But it will be a charade.

David Cameron will be there, but as Tory leader rather than Prime Minister. The only MPs actually voting will be Conservatives (and a few Ulster unionists). Labour and Liberal Democrats will stay away, although Douglas Alexander, the shadow foreign secretary, will be on the opposition front bench and will explain why Labour is abstaining.

Miliband’s micro-triumph has been to encourage Labour’s Eurosceptic MPs to join the boycott of the vote. I don’t know how many of them will join the Tories in the Aye lobby on Friday. The Bill provides for exactly what they want, namely a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union by the end of 2017, but most of them have been persuaded not to vote for it on the grounds that it is a “Tory” Bill and that they have not been consulted about it.

Because Labour and the Lib Dems refuse to oppose the Bill, it could just go through on the nod, but that would be no good for the Tories at all. They want a vote to take place, even if it is a charade. For them, the counting of the votes matters almost as much as the Bill becoming law. They want to be able to say to their constituents that they have voted for a referendum. So far only 81 of them can say that – those who rebelled against the Government in October 2011.

It is possible that one or two MPs will vote against the Bill. There are many who are opposed either to this referendum or to referendums in principle, but there are very few who are prepared to record a vote to say so. So the Conservative Party in Parliament will stage a vote, in effect unopposed, merely for show. Most entertainingly, the party members’ newsletter, otherwise known as The Daily Telegraph, pretended yesterday to be shocked to discover that the Bill wouldn’t guarantee that there will be a referendum even if it does pass – and there is a lot more procedure to come, including in the House of Lords.

It was the first time in the history of journalism that a newspaper led its front page with a principle of the British constitution, namely that no parliament can bind its successor, which has not been “news” since the time of Simon de Montfort.

For Miliband, then, so far, so good. But if he looks up from his two inches of ivory, he will see the great fissure over Europe zigzagging towards him, tearing the substructure of British politics apart. As in 1971, 1974-5 and 1993, the question of Europe is going to divide both main parties. But which will be more divided, and who will manage the tensions better?

Painting Wharton’s private member’s Bill as a meaningless Tory propaganda device is one thing, but the question will keep coming back, and at the European Parliament elections next year and the general election the year after, it will be harder for the Labour Party’s policy to be not having a policy. I think Miliband is tempted to give it a try, though. What he could say, which has the advantage of being self-evident, is that a referendum is not a policy, it is a mechanism. Labour is in favour of EU membership, and thinks that the people ought to have the chance to renew their approval of it, but now is not the time because the EU is going through a period of change. Let’s have a vote when the euro crisis is over.

The trouble is that, however sane, balanced and sensible, it sounds bad. Against the simple-minded demand for the people to “have a say” on Europe, “yes but not yet” sounds like a political evasion.

Never mind that the Tory party’s divisions are much deeper. For nearly half the party’s members and MPs, the demand for a referendum is a way of saying that Britain should leave the EU while trying to borrow some of the sanity, balance and sense of those who want to stay but accept that continued membership requires direct democratic approval. The exact proportion of Tories who have decided to go is confused by opinion polls that ask “what if” David Cameron renegotiates the terms of our membership and recommends staying in? A YouGov poll for Professor Tim Bale at Queen Mary, University of London last month found that 54 per cent of Tory members would vote to stay in on that basis.

But for Labour, this comes down to votes. Miliband’s principles will count for nothing if he thinks Labour will lose votes by being opposed to the people “having a say”. He’ll bravely hold the line this Friday, but in the autumn, or early next year, I suspect that Labour will decide that the only way to “end the uncertainty” is to promise a referendum too.

John Rentoul is chief political commentator for ‘The Independent on Sunday’

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £38,000

£16000 - £38000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to continued expansion, an ...

Ashdown Group: Senior .Net Developer - Kingston Upon Thames, Surrey

£65000 - £70000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A long-established, tech...

Ashdown Group: Editor-in-chief - Financial Services - City, London

£60000 - £70000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Ashdown Group: Software Development Project Manager - Kingston Upon Thames

£55000 - £60000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: Experienced Software Dev...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Editor's Letter: Most powerful woman in British politics

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
All the major parties are under pressure from sceptical voters to spell out their tax and spending plans  

Yet again, the economy is the battleground on which the election will be fought

Patrick Diamond
Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

Open letter to David Cameron

Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

You don't say!

Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

So what is Mubi?

Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

The hardest job in theatre?

How to follow Kevin Spacey
Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

This human tragedy has been brewing for years

EU states can't say they were not warned
Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

Women's sportswear

From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

Clinton's clothes

Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders