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Editorial: Mr Miliband can afford to be bolder on Europe

Labour's position is sensible, but its presentation has been shambolic

Labour's leadership has helped to make the past few days easier for David Cameron than they should have been. Normally the party's media operation is as disciplined as it was when Alastair Campbell ruled. Shadow cabinet members stick to a message with machine-like rigidity, even if their words are light on policy detail. In the leadership's response to David Cameron's speech on Europe, though, the opposite has applied.

As far as is possible in a fast-moving situation, Labour has a policy on Europe and referendums that is sensible and fairly principled. Yet the presentation of its position since Mr Cameron's speech has been shambolic. At Prime Minister's Questions, Ed Miliband appeared to rule out an in/out referendum. Within hours, his office clarified that he only meant he was ruling one out now. Later, on BBC's Newsnight, his spokeswoman on Europe, Emma Reynolds, appeared at once to rule one out and possibly rule one in. The sequence helped to make Mr Cameron appear more decisive than he had been and Labour more incoherent than it was.

So far as can be divined from these confused statements, the party leadership argues that promising an in/out referendum so long before its projected date will cause instability and deter business from long-term investment. While it does not see the case, or the need, for such a referendum, Labour cannot exclude holding one at all, given the state of flux in the eurozone and more widely in the European Union.

Of course, there is another crudely expedient reason why the Labour leadership refuses to rule out a referendum in the future. It might be forced to offer one in order to win an election – or not to lose one, if Mr Cameron's offer proves to be overwhelmingly popular in more than two years' time. This is a perfectly reasonable position for an opposition party to take, but its leaders need to work out a way of explaining this approach in a confident, accessible manner. In opposition, words are the only weapon available.

Mr Miliband deserves some credit for not acting with wholehearted opportunism by pre-empting Mr Cameron and offering a referendum earlier. In the short term, such a move would have unsettled the Prime Minister, made restive Conservative MPs even more insurrectionary and won Mr Miliband plaudits in the same Eurosceptic newspapers that are now cheering Mr Cameron. Such an initiative would also have been pathetically weak, as Mr Miliband – quite rightly – does not believe that a referendum is in the national interest. Nor, if he were to win the election, would he want to be diverted by having to win a plebiscite or face the catastrophic consequences of defeat. He has chosen the bolder course and one, in the medium term, that is also in his best interests; it moves him on to common ground with the Liberal Democrats and many business leaders. Currently, though, this common ground is almost as ill defined as Mr Cameron's leap into the unknown.

The Prime Minister's speech on Europe has raised many other big questions. For the first time since 1975, there is doubt about whether Britain will remain part of the EU, uncertainty about whether Mr Cameron would lead a campaign to stay in or pull out, and imprecision about what he would seek to negotiate if he won the next election – a prospect that is highly uncertain itself. For a single speech to generate such a destabilising set of questions presented the Opposition with an opportunity. So far, though, Labour has only shown how nervous it is about challenging Mr Cameron's Euroscepticism. Mr Miliband needs to summon up his courage, lay his Europhile cards clearly on the table and proceed from there.