EU referendum question poses difficulties for Labour
Voters have been promised poll on exit before end of 2017
David Cameron listens to Nick Clegg at a political meeting last year. The referendum proposal was left out of the queen’s speech as the Liberal Democrats would not accept it. Photograph: Reuters
Conservative party MPs, comprising those who are strongly Eurosceptic or those prepared to stay in the European Union only if the United Kingdom gets a better deal, will win a House of Commons vote today, but only because most of Labour and the Liberal Democrats will not turn up.
For some, the second reading debate on the European Union (Referendum) Bill put down by Conservative MP for Stockton South James Wharton is just a piece of parliamentary theatre.
However, it is more than that. In Wharton’s legislation, MPs will be asked to agree that a referendum on the UK’s membership of the union “must be held” before December 31st, 2017, while a date for it would have to be struck a year before.
Last January, following months of dithering, British prime minister David Cameron said he would put renegotiated EU membership terms – though there is no guarantee that he can get them – before voters in 2017 if he is re-elected in the 2015 general election.
That promise was extracted by Tory MPs who believe he would never have gone as far as he has if they had not pushed him at every turn. Equally, most of them are convinced the PM will, in the end, do everything possible to keep the UK inside the union, even at the cost of urging voters to accept a poor deal.
If passed, Wharton’s legislation would mean that the next government – even a Labour administration – would have to bring legislation for a referendum before the House of Commons and the House of Lords, or else repeal his work if it becomes law.
“It will bind a future government. This is one of the misconceptions around,” Wharton told The Irish Times. “The secretary of state will be bound to bring an order before parliament. Parliament can then reject it, or repeal the Act, but it would be a very brave parliament to deny people a choice.”
Even though the private members’ Bill is in Wharton’s name, it is not his legislation since it is, in fact, a draft Bill prepared by No 10 Downing Street but one that could not be included in the queen’s speech because the Liberal Democrats would not accept it.
Believing that the Conservatives are embarking on “a parliamentary stunt”, the Lib Dems remain wedded to offering voters an in/out option – but only if a major EU treaty has been negotiated.
Once it has safely passed its second reading, the Bill will begin its tortuous progress through the system, culminating in a vote on report stage in November. In reality,its chances of getting on to the statute books are slim. Labour leader Ed Miliband and the Lib Dem deputy prime minister Nick Clegg believe Wharton’s legislation can be driven into the long grass, with votes avoided by parliamentary manoeuvres rather than confrontation.
But whether it passes is not the main point. Miliband will, sooner or later, have to decide what he is going to do about the core issue: does he back a referendum, which he does not want, or accept the role of the man denying voters a voice?
Taking a swipe at his coalition partners, Cameron has said: “In the end, people have to get off the fence and say what they think about it. I totally support it. It is my policy written into law.”
The Tories could have made Miliband’s life more difficult this week had they reached out more to Eurosceptic Labour MPs (they do exist).
So far, Miliband has been prepared to offer a referendum if extra powers are shifted to Brussels, believing that to promise anything else is political madness.
The nightmare scenario for Miliband is that he wins the election, only to find that his first 2½ years in No 10 – the only period in which an administration can reasonably hope to get anything done – are consumed by “Europe”.
In such a scenario Miliband would be faced with a new Tory leader – since Cameron would be gone – while most Tories would campaign rabidly for an exit.
Miliband’s cautious line is unlikely to be permanent. Most of Labour’s shadow cabinet admit they cannot campaign in 2015 as the party “denying the people the vote”. Last week shadow chancellor Ed Balls publicly made clear his thoughts: “I certainly don’t think we can ever afford to give the impression that we know better than the voting public.”
Indeed, some in Labour – including, it is rumoured, Balls – argued last year that Miliband, not Cameron should have been first to promise a referendum, leaving the prime minister to play catch-up.
So the issue is not if Labour will change tack, but how and when. And whether it must happen before conference or whether it can be delayed until closer to the election.