Europe: Tories Wobble; Labour Don’t
Master strategist George Osborne’s latest cunning plan is to play Bad European to David Cameron’s Good European. The Prime Minister said in July that leaving the EU would be “bad for Britain” and “a complete denial of our national interests”. The Daily Telegraph paraphrased him thus: “Mr Cameron will not countenance leaving the EU and says he would never campaign for an ‘out’ vote in a referendum.”
Yesterday, in an interview with Die Welt (not Die Bild), the Chancellor said: “I very much hope Britain remains a member of the EU. But in order that we can remain in the European Union, the EU must change.” As The Independent rightly headlined it, this is “the first explicit threat to quit the EU” from a British minister (since the referendum campaign of 1975).
Quite large potatoes, then.
And also quite a mixed message. Once again, the Conservatives seem to be deciding their policy on one of the most important questions of this country’s future day by day, according to the latest opinion-poll averages for UKIP and the timetable for writing a speech, to be delivered in the Netherlands on Tuesday week, into which the Prime Minister boxed himself.
That speech is expected to include a promise of a referendum on whatever terms Cameron can negotiate, if the Conservatives are still in government after 2015.
Even as a Eurosceptic Blairite, who is only just persuaded that we should avoid risking our access to the single market, this seems a pile of crock.
I was surprised, therefore, to read the brilliant Dan Hodges on Thursday saying that Ed Miliband was “seriously toying with” the idea of matching Cameron’s promise of an “in or out” referendum. It included a quotation from an anonymous member of the shadow cabinet: “His backbenchers would eat Cameron alive, and then they’d eat each other.”
That sounds like the authentic voice of a Brownite, all positioning and no policy. Fun though it might be to watch short-term Tory mayhem, it is not going to happen. Only on Wednesday this week Miliband told the Daily Mirror that a Government promise of a referendum meant “five years of uncertainty” and would deter investment.
It may be that the Brownites see some short-term political advantage, and that Jon Cruddas sees a referendum not as a policy question but as a way of trying to give people a say and to break down the perception that Europe is a conspiracy of the elite against the masses. But I understand that Miliband will not support a referendum for some time, if ever, and certainly not soon after Cameron’s speech. Why would he? The Tories may not be eating themselves, but they are biting and scratching each other quite enthusiastically already.
And it is hard to imagine Miliband going on television any time this year to say: “Come to think of it, David Cameron has got a point.”
 Hopi Sen had some fun with Margaret Thatcher’s Bruges speech, 1988, suggesting that Cameron’s refusal to countenance exit was more consistent with the Mother of All Sceptics’s belief that “our destiny is in Europe” than Osborne’s willingness to countenance the same.
 Update: The mixed messages continue on the front page of the Mail on Sunday this morning, with “those close to Mr Cameron” quoted saying that he thinks that leaving the EU would be “mad” and that Osborne’s suggestion that we might was intended mainly as a “negotiating tactic”. This is far, far worse than mere mix-ups of media management.
 Update: As confirmed by Ed Miliband on BBC1 this morning.
Photograph: ReutersTagged in: ed miliband, euroscepticism, george osborne, labour
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