If any line abides from today’s session of PMQs, it will be one said by Ed Miliband. “My position is no,” quivered the Labour leader, “we don’t want an in/out referendum.” And it’s a position that you can expect to see repeated not just on the news later, but on Tory campaign literature and posters. Labour, they will say, don’t want to listen to the public. They aren’t doing the democratic thing.
And so it was that David Cameron triumphed in PMQs. This was a more favourable setting for the Prime Minister than it has been for many months. Not only was Ed Miliband pitching for the “we won’t let you vote” vote, but the Tory backbenches were offering up full-throated support to their leader. Combined with today’s encouraging employment news, it was more than enough to drown out any concerns about the impending growth figures. Mr Cameron was confident and clinical, not least in his quip at Sir Menzies Campbell’s expense, that “an in/out referendum was very much part of his party’s manifesto at the last election”.
But before we get carried away, it’s worth considering the content of Mr Miliband’s questions. Fundamentally, he asked only one: “Can the Prime Minister guarantee that, in the case of any referendum, he would vote to stay in the EU?” And, while Mr Cameron managed to deflect this each time by claiming that he wants Britain to stay part of a reformed EU, the Labour leader has hit on one of the potential problems here. A large part of Mr Cameron’s strategy hinges on a successful renegotiation of Britain’s relationship with Europe, but if that can’t be delivered – what then? If he still campaigns to stay in, then he risks aggravating the party that is standing behind him today. If he decides that we’re better off out, then it rather muddies the clarity of his earlier speech.
Little wonder why Mr Cameron was eager to talk up his chances of success. He, and a couple of Tory backbenchers, made the point that it’s not just Britain that wants change, but most of Europe too. And he did so knowing that he could skewer the Labour leader’s non-position at any time. “There is a big change taking place in Europe,” he said at one point. “You either walk towards that… or you stick your head in the sand.”
As for the other backbench questions, there were lots on specific cuts, although one on yesterday’s defence cuts stood out. It came from Jack Straw, who urged Mr Cameron to re-open the Strategic Defence Review of 2010, in view of the new threats rising out of Africa. This is something that I also suggested the Government consider, in a blog-post yesterday. A shame, then, that the Prime Minister declined.