Just what was Ed Miliband thinking of at PMQs today?

by Stephen Tall on January 23, 2013

Ed Miliband was always going to be on a loser today. Eurosceptic Tory MPs (ie, pretty much all of them) are cock-a-hoop at their Tory leader finally giving into their demands, and giving them what they’ve always wanted and he’s previously resisted: the excuse to bang on and on about Europe for the next four years.

So I had some sympathy for the Labour leader approaching today’s Prime Minister’s Questions.

He had two options open to him:

EITHER:

“We think a referendum’s a distraction from focusing on the economy, but the battle to stay in Europe is a battle for jobs — so we’ll join with the Prime Minister in campaigning for the UK to stay in the EU.” [My view for what it’s worth.]

OR:

“We think the a referendum is a complete distraction from the economy. He can bang on about Europe all he wants. I’m going to keep my focus 100% on the economy.” [Nick Clegg’s view.]

Unfortunately for him, Ed Miliband chose neither option. Actually, that’s not quite right. He chose the second option. But only by default, eventually and weakly, after being stung into a response by David Cameron (not unreasonably) asking him time and time again: Do you support an in/out referendum?

Miliband’s response will be replayed many times — by the Tories and by the media — in the weeks and months to come:

It’s not just David Cameron who’s spent weeks on this speech. Ed Miliband has also had weeks to get craft his response (or to sneak in early if he’d chosen). What possessed him? Is he a Tory sleeper agent after all?

There are moments in politics when the plates shift. Today was one of those days.

Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband are both correct to say this is the wrong time to hold a referendum, or even to promise one. But too late: the Prime Minister has gone and done just that. The Lib Dems and Labour will now have to respond. And I bet you that both parties will end up matching the Tory promise at the next election: how could they (we) do otherwise?

But Ed Miliband has made it a whole lot harder for Labour now. Worse, it looked like he did it by mistake.

Update:

Apparently it was a mistake after all:

So now we know Labour’s policy: they against an in/out EU referendum… until they’re not. Thanks for clearing that one up, guys.