Watching Caroline Flint on the Daily Politics earlier, you can see one thing David Cameron has achieved with his Europe speech. He has put Labour on the back foot. Despite having known what was in the speech for several days, they clearly haven’t worked out a line to take. If I was a Labour MP I’d find that pretty unforgivable. Flint was left to hang out to dry and had nothing to say. She ducked the “are you in favour of an In-Out referendum question”, indicating that it hadn’t been discussed in Shadow Cabinet. Bearing what came later in PMQs one has to ask if Ed Miliband was making policy on the hoof.
The initial reaction to the speech within the Conservative Party appears to have been fairly positive, with even the usual suspects supporting what he has said. Admittedly I haven’t heard from the likes of Ken Clarke and Michael Heseltine, but they represent a very small minority of thinking within the modern day Conservative Party.
But before we all get carried away, let’s look at what David Cameron has actually promised. The two headline promises are to negotiate the deletion of the ‘Ever Closer Union’ provision from European treaties and to promise an In-Out referendum by the end of 2017, after having renegotiated various terms of our membership. All that is contingent on the Conservatives winning an outright victory at the next election. And I wonder how many of us would put money on them actually doing that. The question I have to ask is this: why wait until after the election to legislate for a referendum. Why not do it before the election, because not to do so plays right into UKIP’s hands. Nigel Farage will spend the next few years sowing seeds of doubt in the minds of the electorate as to whether the PM will actually deliver on his promise. He will cite Cameron’s apparent ratting on a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty (he didn’t, of course, but the nuances in this debate are too subtle) as evidence that no one can be sure that the PM will keep his promise. I am surprised that the likes of Bill Cash and Mark Pritchard haven’t made more of this.
Last week I thought Ed Miliband wiped the floor with David Cameron at PMQs. This week I am afraid it was very different. Ed Miliband was all over the place. He asked the same question four times and David Cameron answered it clearly. Yet Miliband kept on bowling at the same losing wicket. And by the end of his questions we had no clue as to what Miliband’s own position actually is. He did have the good grace to say “No, we don’t want an In-Out referendum,” I suppose. He may live to regret that. Labour MPs seemed to gasp when he said that. But Miliband gave no clue as to whether he wanted any sort of renegotiation at all. This is something that will allow the Conservatives to paint him as a Brussels lackey. In terms of marks out of ten I would give Cameron 7 and Miliband 5. (Last week it was Cameron 4 and Miliband 8).
It will be very interesting now to watch the reaction of Labour’s Eurosceptics, because, believe it or not, there are quite a lot of them. Jack Straw is one example. I suspect he will be horrified by Miliband’s performance today. I wonder whether Straw and other Labour MPs will make their views heard and try to change Miliband’s mind on a referendum.
I don’t know whether Cameron will live to regret the events of today. It’s probably put paid to any leadership chatter, so as a short term fix it has done its job. But what if the other 26 EU Countries are resolute in resisting any form of renegotiation. The German Foreign Minister, Guido Westerwelle, has already said Germany will not allow Britain to “cherry pick” and Laurent Fabius, the French Foreign Minister has been banging on about obeying the rules of the club. Cameron’s tactics are clearly designed to say to them “Come on, help me out here guys, I’ve got to go back with something.” The trouble is, I doubt whether it is possible to give Cameron enough to satisfy the Bill Cash tendency.
The big question is whether the electorate can really get excited about this issue. It’s possible that over the next four years voters will get very bored and wonder why Conservative politicians are banging on about an issue that they regard as on the fringe. The challenge for David Cameron is to ensure that doesn’t happen and explain why qa lot of time and effort should be expended on this issue rather than the economy, jobs and public services.
UPDATE: Interesting commentary from Lord Ashcroft HERE
For most voters, including those who will need to vote Conservative for the first time if we are to have any hope of a majority, Europe barely registers on their list of concerns. The principal benefit of our referendum policy is not that it gives our campaign a headline; it is that it allows us to put the issue to rest and move the conversation on to what the voters want to discuss. Europe is important and we have a clear view about it. That does not mean we should allow it to top our agenda, or look as though it does. Few things would please Ed Miliband more. Tories must remember that we can only get what we want once we win an election. The more we talk about changing our relationship with Europe, the less likely it is to happen.