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’