That EU vote: 6 thoughts on what it means for the Tories, Lib Dems and Labour

by Stephen Tall on May 16, 2013

clegg cameron miliband116 Tory MPs last night backed an amendment to the Queen’s Speech and called for an EU referendum bill. Here’s six thoughts from me on what it all means…

This wasn’t about Europe (much): this was about Cameron’s leadership

The Tory outers/Eurosceptics had already won: David Cameron capitulated in January, conceding an in/out referendum he’d tried hard to dodge. But that wasn’t enough for them. So they forced the Tory leader to capitulate again this week, forcing him to rush out a draft Bill legislating for just such a referendum and saying he’d love to pass if it weren’t for those pesky Lib Dems. But that still wasn’t enough to appease the head-banging contingent, so he was forced to re-capitulate by offering a free vote on the not-so-rebel Baron/Bone amendment regretting the failure of the Government’s own Queen’s Speech to call for a referendum right now.

This wasn’t about a European referendum, not really. This was about Tory backbenchers rubbing the Prime Minister’s nose in it, showing him who’s boss. For all that it’s three years since the Coalition was formed, those five days in May still frame most of today’s arguments.

Tory backbenchers remain irritated that David Cameron failed to win the May 2010 election. But more than that (much more) they are irritated that he then chose to form a Coalition with the Lib Dems. The tactically shrewd thing to do, they say — and on this they’re undoubtedly right — would have been to offer a Coalition, then make conditions the Lib Dems couldn’t accept, rule for a few months as a minority government by proposing some populist Tory measures on immigration and welfare which would have been voted down, then call a second election in October 2010, and win an outright majority. The further into this parliament we get the more astounding it is that Mr Cameron didn’t go down this path.

Of course, Mr Cameron would say he was doing the right thing for the nation. Maybe. I suspect a personal desperation to get into Downing Street counted for quite a lot too. Whatever the motivation, though, the effect is the same. Right-wing Tories are blocked from pursuing the agenda they want to — and they don’t like it.

Last year, their frustration bubbled over because of Lords reform (promised in their last three manifestos as well as the Coalition Agreement, but no matter). This year it’s Europe. But ultimately it’s all about David Cameron’s two big failures: not beating Gordon Brown outright and not holding his nerve by pursuing a minority government. Too many Tories just can’t forgive him for those errors, especially now they see Ukip profiting from them.

The Conservative Party is losing its fitness to govern

It was assumed the Lib Dems would be the flaky ones in the Coalition. Far from it. The party dipped its collective hand in the blood when sealing the Coalition Agreement and there has been no attempt since then to go back on the deal. Tensions, yes. Withdrawal, never. The only serious threat to the future of the Coalition has been the result of the Tories failing to keep their side of the bargain (Lords reform), and now with their MPs beating up on their own leader.

The Tory backbenchers are unruly, which makes it difficult for the Tories to rule. Those Tory backbenchers wondering why David Cameron was so desperate to avoid leading a minority government (followed by possible a too-close-for-comfort majority after a hypothetical October 2010 election) need only look in the mirror.

Only David Cameron can win a referendum

This is the other part of the explanation for Tory MPs’ nervousness about the Prime Minister’s intentions. David Cameron has said, quite explicitly, that he wants to re-negotiate the UK’s terms and then lead a ‘Yes to the EU’ campaign. Not surprisingly, Tory ‘outers’ don’t relish that prospect.

And here’s the uncomfortable truth for those of us in the better-off-in camp: Mr Cameron is our best hope. As I’ve pointed out before, logically there is only one way to vote in 2015 if you want to be sure the UK stays in the EU: vote Tory.

The Tories’ EU obsessiveness is drowning out the relatively better economic news

This week’s news agenda has been crowded out by Tory divisions over Europe. The relatively good economic news has, as a result, received barely a hearing. Hardly a mention of recovering consumer confidence in the state of the economy. Easy to ignore the Bank of England’s revised forecast for stronger growth than previously expected. Not even time for any passing, tasteless schadenfreude that Socialist-led France has returned to recession. The Tories were just too, too busy banging on about Europe.

(To be clear: the UK’s economic growth is still likely to be anaemic. That the news is hailed as good says more about how low our expectations now are. However, the plain political fact remains the Government will now claim credit for an economy fumbling its way towards growth.)

The Lib Dem position is consistent and right (doesn’t make it easy to defend)

The Lib Dems have stuck to our guns: an in/out referendum the next time there’s a major treaty. That was the party’s view five years ago when Lisbon was being debated. It was the party’s manifesto commitment in 2010. And it is now Coalition Government policy.

None of which makes it easy to defend, though. The Tories say we should ask the people now: and we’re saying not yet. Tough sell. But when politicians avoid the easy choice (in this case conceding a referendum) it’s actually worth asking why. The answer’s clear: we don’t yet know what shape or form the EU will take once the Eurozone crisis is resolved (which may happen peaceably or messily). Ask the question now and you may end up having to ask it again in three years’ time.

Credit to Ed Miliband: he’s got this big call right (but will he stick to it?)

Ed Miliband could’ve done a John Smith this week: used clever, lawyerly parliamentary tactics to cause maximum mayhem for the Government. He didn’t. Critics will say it’s because Labour’s unsure what its policy should be on a referendum. There’s clearly an element of truth in that. But the bigger truth, I suspect, is that Mr Miliband knows for sure what he wants to avoid: saddling himself with the promise of a referendum which could tie any future Labour government up in knots on an issue they don’t care that much about.

Commit to an in/out referendum now, and if he wins in 2015 the Labour leader will have to invest huge political capital fighting for UK membership of the EU against a hostile right-wing press and a new Tory leader who will, almost certainly, be an ‘outer’. Chances are he’d lose. Ed Miliband can see that unalluring prospect and is desperate to avoid it, rightly. Whether he can withstand the pressure to cave between now and the next election is another matter though.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum, and also writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.