James Wharton’s Referendum Bill, which the Commons will debate for the first time next Friday, is starting to concentrate the minds of the more alert members of the Opposition. For while the Labour Party has said it will boycott that particular Bill, which it pretends to find too partisan, it knows it cannot indefinitely boycott the question of whether or not the British people should be allowed to decide whether or not we remain in the European Union.
Today’s Guardian reports that some members of the Shadow Cabinet now believe Labour should call for a European referendum as early as May 22 next year, when the European and local elections will be held. One can see why such a proposal might attract them. It would not merely enable Labour to claim that it was “more democratic” than the Tories, because it wanted to consult the people sooner. An early referendum might cause carnage among the Tories, by exposing the split between those who want to get us out of the EU and those who want to stay in.
Mr Wharton’s Bill seeks to write in to law David Cameron’s proposal for a referendum in 2017, by which time he hopes to have renegotiated the terms of our membership. Ed Miliband and his colleagues are worried that were they to commit themselves to this timetable, and were they to get back into power in 2015, their first two years in office might be dominated by the impending European referendum, which they might then lose.
So there is a strong temptation for them to go for an
earlier referendum. But there is also the danger, from their point of view,
that having committed themselves so strongly to the principle of a referendum, they
might find themselves actually holding one.
Labour politicians who want to play this subject for
purely tactical advantage should bear in mind the story of George Bernard Shaw
asking an actress if she would sleep with him for a million pounds. She
responded in an encouraging tone that she would certainly think about it. Shaw
then asked if she would sleep with him for a pound. The actress was scandalised
and asked him what kind of a woman he thought she was, to which Shaw replied:
“Madam, we’ve already established that. Now we are haggling about the price.”
Tony Blair and his pro-EU friends would almost certainly say it was
totally disreputable of Mr Miliband to facilitate an early referendum, and thus
perhaps by accident bring about Britain’s departure from the EU. So Mr Miliband
faces the risk of a split in his own party too. But he knows the danger for the
Tories of a calamitous rift on this issue is far greater, so he may still
decide, in an opportunist fashion, to set out to destroy the Conservative Party.
The Prime Minister will, one assumes, do everything he can
to stick to his plan of holding a referendum in 2017, after he has carried out
his renegotiation. He will say it is ridiculous to consult the people until he
has seen whether he can obtain better terms from Brussels.
But for those Tories who actually believe that we would be
better off as a sovereign nation, with the right to make our own laws, better
terms would be a drawback. These Tories want nothing which would make
a “yes” vote more likely.
What a complicated calculation Mr Miliband must now make.
He has to show leadership, which means showing a capacity to take difficult
and perhaps not immediately popular decisions. If instead his conduct as
Leader of the Opposition continues to look like dithering tempered by
opportunism, the European issue could turn out to be a disaster for him too.