Conservative unity on Europe will break open deep Labour fractures

Andrew Lilico
DAVID Cameron’s Europe speech united the Conservative party. But it also created two enormous challenges: one for Cameron himself and one for Ed Miliband.

In 2009, with the Lisbon Treaty ratified, Cameron and William Hague decided it would be absurd to have a retrospective referendum. They announced a new policy, including a sovereignty bill, a referendum lock, and the repatriation of key powers. This garnered reasonable mainstream Eurosceptic support. But they also made the terrible error of indicating that achieving significant repatriation would be a low priority compared with addressing the economy and public service reform. They thought the way to a quiet life on Europe was to talk about it as little as possible.

They were wrong. By refusing to engage on Europe – and especially by agreeing to a coalition with the Lib Dems that ruled out renegotiation – Cameron and Hague lost the confidence of their party. MPs began to rebel more and more on European questions, culminating in 81 defying the whip to vote in favour of an EU referendum. And with a spirit of rebellion in place, MPs started grumbling about other issues – House of Lords reform, the deficit reduction strategy, and health reforms. It was not talking about the EU that created splits in the party.

By contrast, with the leadership now committed to a renegotiation-and-referendum strategy (and MPs can’t fail to note that Cameron has promised a referendum even if he leads another coalition after 2015), Conservative MPs will rally around, allowing focus and discipline on other issues – the economy, education reform, welfare reform and so on. Get-outers have long argued for an in-out referendum. But Cameron is now offering more than that. In his referendum, there will be no “in” option, where “in” means the status quo. His will be a renegotiation-versus-leave referendum. Almost no-one in the Conservative Party will be unhappy with that.

The big challenge will come if Cameron wins in 2015. Then he has to carry his promise through. It will be a big ask to achieve a sufficiently significant repatriation that Conservatives can agree to accept. The chances are that a large body – perhaps half to two thirds – will consider a modest repatriation a failure that should entail a no vote in the referendum. If Cameron agrees, all well and good. But if he feels he has to back whatever deal he achieves, most of his party may split against him.

But that’s a challenge for another day. From now until 2015, much the bigger challenge – and much the bigger threat of splits – lies with Labour. Miliband has said that Labour wants to repatriate powers (bizarrely including state aid, the repatriation of which would constitute the end of the Single Market). But yesterday he appeared to rule out a referendum. Most serious Labour commentators have urged or predicted that Labour must enter 2015 promising some form of referendum – just as in 1997 it promised a public vote on the euro – to park the issue and focus on other things.

Labour is not an instinctively pro-EU party. It does not attract activists because of its EU policies. Supporters are interested in the NHS, the unemployed, the poor, or equality issues. Its members will have little appetite for standing against public opinion on the issue, and most of the public has wanted a referendum for years.

Indeed, that’s also true of Labour voters. Around 60 per cent of them want a referendum, according to YouGov. Labour voters are highly ambivalent even about the benefits of EU membership – 41 per cent think leaving would be bad for jobs; 41 per cent think it would be good or make no difference. As austerity and unemployment continue across the Eurozone, how long will a pro-EU stance, originally adopted to create political difference from Labour’s deep EU splits of the 1970s and early 1980s, be sustainable?

Miliband must surely U-turn and offer a referendum. But what of Nick Clegg? Does anyone care? The Lib Dems can’t exit the coalition without self-immolating, and if there’s a hung Parliament in 2015 they will go with Labour anyway. They’ll match everyone else’s referendum pledges eventually.

From now until 2015, Labour will have the problem. It must promise a referendum, but likely cannot promise substantial renegotiation. So its referendum would probably result in the UK leaving the EU. As Cameron argued, the true Europhile position from here is the one in which we renegotiate. A slim chance of success, but worth a try.

Andrew Lilico is chairman of Europe Economics, and a columnist for ConservativeHome.