Labour avoids declaring position on EU vote
Britain’s Tories believe referendum has provided them with an electoral weapon
Shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander during the debate in the House of Commons about the European Union (Referendum) Bill yesterday. Photograph: PA Wire
Labour’s Douglas Alexander did not have the best of days in the House of Commons yesterday, squirming uncomfortably as he sought to avoid declaring the pledge that Labour will give to voters about the UK’s European Union membership in the 2015 general election campaign.
However, during a debate on a Conservative-led legislation that would require the publication of plans for a 2017 referendum in 2016, he did have one exquisitely good line, as he mocked UK prime minister David Cameron. “He is sitting on the frontbench like a hostage, not a leader,” he said. “This is not being debated because Conservative backbenchers trust the public; it is being debated because Conservative backbenchers do not trust the prime minister. That is the reality.”
An in/out referendum in 2017 is not “in the national interest”, he said: the date has been chosen by arbitrary means decided by “an unrealistic and uncertain negotiating strategy”, brought “forward by a party divided between those seeking consent and those seeking exit”.
Alexander’s judgment is not far off the mark, but, equally, the Conservatives’ current stand – brought forth because of increased Eurosceptism on their benches and fear of being outflanked by UKIP – is electorally seductive for many voters, as well he knows. Labour’s conundrum was best illustrated by the exchange between Alexander and Conservative MP, Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, one of hundreds of Tories who had stayed back for the Friday debate on a Private Members’ Bill.
“Will [he] give an absolute assurance on behalf of the Labour party that it will not change its mind about opposing a referendum for the British people before the next election?” demanded the Cotswold MP.
“We have maintained our position that any judgment in relation to an in-out referendum has to be based on the national interest. Our judgment is that the national interest is not served by this Bill, and that is why we do not support it,” replied the Labour MP. Inside the Commons chamber, the Conservative MPs were in their element, as they put themselves forward as the people prepared to give “the great British people their say”, in the words of one of them.
Praise for legislation
For nearly five hours they praised the legislation that had been drafted by No 10, but which is now being piloted by backbench MP James Wharton because the Liberal Democrats refused to allow it to become a government Bill. Again and again, they insisted that the debate was about giving people the opportunity to have a first say on the EU since Labour’s Harold Wilson’s much-derided referendum in 1975, but in truth, for most of them it is an exit they want, not new membership terms.
The newly knighted Conservative, Edward Leigh, held out little hope that Cameron can come back from Brussels with substantially revised membership rules for the UK that he could put to the people in the referendum he promised in January. “I am confident that there will be a referendum. I fear that our partners in Europe will make very few concessions. I fear that the French will not be prepared to give us more freedom on agriculture, and I fear that the Spanish will not be prepared to give us more freedom on fishing.
“I fear that we will make very little progress, but we will try our best and the decision will then go to the British people,” he said, “When we get to that point, unless major concessions are made I, like many other Conservatives, will campaign for this country once more to be free.” Even Leigh does not believe that Wharton’s legislation has any chance of becoming law, saying jokingly that “the body of my honourable friend with his Bill will be found dead in the morning room with daggers in his back” in about nine or 10 months.
Critically, however, “the responsibility for the British people being denied a referendum will not lie with us”, said Leigh – a line the Conservatives will drive home ruthlessly over the next two years, and one which it believes will unify its ranks in the meantime.