EU referendum question poses difficulties for Labour
Voters have been promised poll on exit before end of 2017
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.