Will Ed Miliband “do a John Smith” and push for an early EU in/out referendum? There are advantages, y’know…

by Stephen Tall on June 29, 2013

John Major and David CameronCould Labour be about to “do a John Smith” to the Tories over the timing of an in/out referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union?

In the 1990s, Labour wrought havoc on the fourth-term Tory government by (cynically) teaming up with the right-wing ‘Maastricht rebels’ to inflict damaging Commons defeats on their common enemy, John Major.

Could Ed Miliband try and do the same to David Cameron? That’s the hint in today’s Guardian:

Labour is considering backing an in-out referendum on Europe as early as its autumn party conference. Sources say the shadow cabinet has been considering a range of options, including backing a “clear the air” referendum on Britain’s membership to be staged either before the 2015 general election or six months after it.

The party is even looking at the option of tabling amendments to the upcoming private member’s bill on an EU referendum in 2017, being promoted by the Conservative MP James Wharton.

The Labour amendment would propose a pre-2015 date for the referendum, which would place some Tory MPs in a dilemma over whether or not to stick with the Conservative leadership’s position that no referendum should be held until the outcome of negotiations with EU partners on the terms of UK membership some time in 2017. A referendum could be staged on the same day as the European parliamentary elections on 22 May next year. …

Labour sources said it was unclear how the leader would resolve the debate but a decision may come in the early autumn, possibly at the party conference, leaving enough time to back an amendment to the Wharton bill.

It is also acknowledged that the Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg has already shifted his ground by saying the referendum is a matter of “when rather than if”, so risking Labour being the only party not to support a referendum at the next election. Labour has said it would abstain on the Wharton bill next week.

My view on this hasn’t changed. As I’ve argued before, I think the Lib Dems should stick with the strategy Paddy Ashdown chose during the Masstrict wrangles: national interest ahead of party interest.

I’ve no problems with an in/out referendum. I just don’t think now’s the time. Partly because there are more pressing issues facing this country, such as our flatlining economy. Partly because we’ve no idea what we’d be saying yes or no to at the moment: whether the Eurozone crisis will resolve itself, and in what way, won’t be known until well past the other side of Germany’s federal election in September.

However, there are two advantages to a referendum being staged this side of the UK’s 2015 general election.

First, the tactical one deployed by John Smith: watching the Tories tear lumps out of each other as they decide whether to stick with David Cameron’s promise of a referendum in 2017, or risk finding themselves out-flanked by Labour’s promise of a referendum ASAP.

And secondly, the strategic advantage: David Cameron is, as I’ve noted before, the best and possibly only person able to lead a Yes campaign to victory — because he’ll most likely be the last Tory leader for a while who isn’t a signed-up better-off-outer. A referendum before 2015 would at least save me from having to vote Tory at the next general election to be sure of the UK remaining within the EU.

* 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.