PMQs Through the Sound-Proof Glass

John Rentoul

edpmqs 300x188 PMQs Through the Sound Proof GlassAn unusual degree of textual analysis is required of the exchanges at Prime Minister’s Questions today.

I thought Ed Miliband simply failed to notice that David Cameron answered his question, twice, and stuck doggedly to the script he and Douglas Alexander had agreed (the more Eurosceptic Ed Balls was notably sullen and silent a further seat down on the Labour front bench).

But what Miliband probably noticed is that Cameron answered the question by saying “Yes” and then going on to define this as the answer to a different question, as Lloyd Evans points out at Coffee House. In which case, why did Miliband not point out the Prime Minister’s dodge and tease it apart?

Edward Miliband (Doncaster North) (Lab): Can the Prime Minister guarantee that if he gets his in/out referendum he will campaign to stay in?

The Prime Minister: Yes, I want Britain to be part of a reformed and successful European Union. This entire argument is about what is in Britain’s national interests. We want a European Union that is more open, more flexible, more competitive, not just good for Britain, but good for Europe too.

Edward Miliband: I do not think that was quite a complete answer to my question. Let us see if we can press the Prime Minister a bit further about how he is going to vote. Is he saying that if he does not achieve his negotiating strategy, he will recommend—[Interruption.] The part-time Chancellor can hang on a minute. Is the Prime Minister saying that if he does not achieve his negotiating strategy, he will recommend that Britain leaves the European Union?

The Prime Minister: First, it is very welcome that the right hon. Gentleman is accepting the premise that the Conservatives will win the next election, and interestingly, not raising the fact that the unemployment figures are down once again today. Employment is up by 90,000 this quarter, and the rate of job growth last year was the fastest since 1989. But I answered his question very clearly. I want to see a strong Britain in a reformed Europe. We have a very clear plan. We want to reset the relationship. We will hold that referendum. We will recommend that resettlement to the British people, but the question now is for him: has he got a clue what he would do?

Edward Miliband: The clue is in the title—Prime Minister’s Questions. He is supposed to be answering the questions. He has had six months to think about this. It is not too much to ask. The Minister without Portfolio, the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), who is not here, would say unequivocally that he would vote yes in a referendum. The Secretary of State for Education, who is hiding away down the Benches there, has briefed that he wants us to leave the European Union. I am just asking the Prime Minister a straight question: can he guarantee that he will vote yes in an in/out referendum?

The Prime Minister: Yes, I support Britain’s membership of a reformed European Union. Only the Leader of the Opposition would go into negotiations expecting to fail. We go into negotiations knowing what is best for Britain. Let me put it to him again. We now have a very clear approach: a renegotiation and then a referendum. What is his answer? Let me tell him—he is meant to lead the Opposition, and you cannot fight something with nothing.

Edward Miliband: The reason that those on the Conservative Back Benches are cheering is not because they want to vote yes in an in/out referendum; it is because they want to vote no. That is the reality for the Prime Minister. He still has not answered the question. Let me put it another way and give him another chance. We know from his speech this morning that he wants to go off and negotiate for fairness, flexibility and motherhood and apple pie in Europe. Can he name one thing—just one thing—which, if he does not get it, he will recommend leaving the European Union?

The Prime Minister: I do not want Britain to leave the European Union. I want Britain to reform the European Union. We have set out the areas where we want—[Interruption.] We have been very clear about what we want to see changed. There is a whole series of areas—social legislation, employment legislation, environmental legislation—where Europe has gone far too far, and we need to properly safeguard the single market. We also want to make sure that ever-closer union does not apply to the United Kingdom. These are the things that we are fighting for. Let me put it to the right hon. Gentleman again. We want a renegotiation and then a referendum. What does he want? Or does he not know?

Edward Miliband: So four hours since the big speech, the Prime Minister cannot answer the most basic question of all—whether he is for yes or for no. Why can he not answer it? Why can he not say unequivocally that he will vote yes in a referendum? Because he is frightened, because of those on the Conservative Back Benches. The only thing that has changed is that a few months ago, when he said he was against an in/out referendum, is not the situation in Europe, but the situation in the Tory party. Why does he not admit it? He has not been driven to it by the national interest, but dragged to it by his party.

The Prime Minister: The most basic question of all is: do you want a referendum? I do. Does he?

Edward Miliband: My position is no, we do not want an in/out referendum—[Interruption.] My position is precisely the same as the Prime Minister’s position when we voted together in October 2011 against an in/out referendum. My position has not changed; it is his position that has changed. And here is the truth: after six months of planning a speech on a referendum, he cannot even tell us whether it is a yes or a no—[Interruption.] The Prime Minister is going to put Britain through years of uncertainty and take a huge gamble with our economy. He is running scared of UKIP, he has given in to his party and he cannot deliver for Britain.

The Prime Minister: I have politely to say to the right hon. Gentleman that his whole argument about there being uncertainty is fatally undermined by the fact that he cannot answer whether he wants a referendum or not. Can I give him a little bit of advice? He needs to go away, get a policy, come back and tell us what it is. In the meantime, our approach is what the British people want. It is right for business, it is right for our economy, and we will fight for it in the years ahead.

In his last answer, Cameron seemed genuinely not to have noticed that Miliband had just said that he was opposed to an in/out referendum, which has since been subject to exegesis by Labour spin doctors, who say that their leader was not saying he would oppose a referendum in all circumstances and for all time.

The session certainly was not the Tory walkover predicted by some, but mainly because Cameron and Miliband seemed to be addressing each other through sound-proof glass. Each of them exposed serious weaknesses in their positions; but Miliband’s will ensure that Cameron gains an even greater boost in the opinion polls this weekend.

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  • Junius

    ‘Each of them exposed serious weaknesses in their positions; but Miliband’s will ensure that Cameron gains an even greater boost in the opinion polls this weekend.’

    So, a short-term boost for the Tories in the opinion polls. Job done – eh, Mr Rentoul?

    Ed Miliband can afford to stick to his no-referendum position for the present because he knows that, as one Ipsos Mori Issues Index after another shows, while voters may grumble and grouse about the EU, they remain sanguine about Britain’s membership. Only one in one hundred considers Europe the most important issue facing the country today, and just six in one hundred considers Europe among other important issues*.

    If the Tories benefit from a longer-term boost in the polls there is more than enough time for Labour to change tack on the referendum question, bringing the main parties back to stalemate. But with voters instinctively apprehensive about change, and concerned over finding themselves outside the EU with the economic and employment uncertainty withdrawal may bring, I reckon Ed’s present course is set fair for Downing Street in 2015.

    *Ipsos Mori Issues Index, December

  • greggf

    It seems clear from the detail of this exchange that Cameron’s previously perceived position of “giving the game away” may not be the case.

    What he means is that he thinks the UK should stay in a “reformed EU”; that is after he, maybe Angela Merkel and others have changed the nature of the beast to be more acceptable and more in line with his useful speech yesterday.

    Whether the EU can be changed remains to be seen. Although Crispin Blunt seems to think Cameron is the man to do it!

  • reformist lickspittle

    Exactly – Cameron gets his short term poll boost (as he did after his fake “veto”, of course) and……….what then??

    The fundamental truth is, he is in a weak position – both domestically and abroad. I also wonder why Rentoul hasn’t mentioned Blair’s remarks on yesterday’s events – after all, he is usually quick enough to inform us what the great man thinks? ;)

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