It’s quite extraordinary to see the contortions into which Cameron has got his Party over the John Baron amendment “regretting” the lack of an EU referendum Bill in the Queen’s Speech. First Downing Street was reportedly “relaxed” about Tory MPs — and Tory cabinet ministers — supporting the amendment. It was even suggested, improbably, that Cameron himself might support it. But the latest position is that Ministers (and PPS’s — the whole payroll vote) are being “advised” to abstain if they can’t bring themselves to oppose it.
In some circles the current fix is described as a “constitutional inanity”. How could government ministers vote against their own programme? I think this problem is exaggerated. As Ministers in a Coalition, Tories may recognised that they are unable to do some things they would like to do. They can surely omit a measure that Nick Clegg would have disallowed, but later regret that they were obliged to do so? To insist on taking the concept of joint cabinet responsibility to its limit would suggest that Tory ministers cannot publicly disagree with Nick Clegg, which would be absurd.
Cameron is surely setting himself up for more embarrassment. I should think that several — perhaps rather a lot — of the payroll vote will conclude that they cannot in all conscience vote against the amendment. If Cameron disciplines them, his backbenchers, activists and members will be furious. If he does not, he’ll look impotent.
Let’s remember that this is a Prime Minister who whipped his troops to vote against an EU referendum last time round. This time, he’s reluctantly (and confusingly) calling on the payroll vote to abstain. Under pressure from UKIP, he’s promised an EU referendum — this year, next year, sometime, never? — but he’s also said he’ll fight “tooth and nail” to keep Britain in the EU. And he broke his previous “cast iron” referendum guarantee. So much for our “Eurosceptic” Prime Minister.
Ed Miliband has hardly covered himself in glory. Yesterday he said Labour would not offer a referendum (I was on BBC Radio Five Live talking about it last night). He argued that voters were concerned about jobs and the cost of living, not the finer points of European Treaties. Yet again he shows himself either ignorant or dishonest (perhaps both), since EU costs and regulation are damaging prosperity and job prospects, while EU policies drive up food and energy costs. We can see the cost of EU membership every time we open an electricity bill. Miliband might as well say that householders are worried about flooding, so we shouldn’t be talking to them about rain, or drainage.
Miliband no doubt thinks his clear stand on the issue will be contrasted favourably with Cameron’s ducking and weaving. But he’s on the wrong side of political tactics, and the wrong side of history. The referendum genie is out of the bottle, and he can’t put it back. In just a year’s time, Miliband will be looking at the results of the 2014 euro-elections. In all probability, UKIP will top the poll. And if Labour is still holding out against an EU referendum, they may do rather badly. Certainly if Labour goes in to the 2015 General Election still opposed to a referendum, they will lose.
Meantime the Lib-Dem position is interesting. Nick Clegg remains on-message, still repeating the lie that “Three million British jobs depend on our EU membership”. He knows this is not true, but the Lib-Dems have never been sticklers for accuracy. But Vince Cable is moving to distance himself from Nick’s hard line. “I think that is putting it in too extreme a way”. What’s changed Vince’s mind? A change of heart? Leadership ambitions? Electoral arithmetic? Whatever it is, he seems a little closer to reality than Clegg.
But the fundamental reason why an EU referendum is on the agenda; why Tory backbenchers (including some who are not the “usual suspects”, but are terrified of losing their seats); why Tory activists are baying for action; why even Vince Cable is shifting his stance, is quite simply pressure from UKIP, and our amazing results in the local elections. A UKIP vote is a wasted vote? Of course not. We’re setting the agenda and driving the debate. Without a seat in Westminster (yet), we’re making the political weather.