The Tory spinners were in an exceptionally good mood after PMQs today. The general feeling was that Ed Miliband had messed up, and this wasn’t helped by his aides having to clarify that when he told the Prime Minister that ‘my position is no – we don’t want an In/Out referendum’, he actually meant that currently they don’t want an In/Out referendum now.
‘The position has not changed,’ said one party source. ‘We do not think that an In/Out referendum is a good idea. We will not do anything which damages the UK economy.’
But they added that they were not ruling one out forever. And they were not ruling out a referendum commitment in the manifesto, either. So this is another ‘for now’ position, rather than a commitment of any sort.
All this confusion was exactly what the Conservative party had hoped for from Cameron’s speech. Briefings to Tory MPs on the lines to take on the speech have focused heavily on the opposition’s stance. I’ve seen a briefing sent by the Conservative Research Department this morning which lists what Labour did in government and the party leadership’s stances for now under two headings: ‘You can’t trust Labour on Europe’ and ‘Labour gave away power after power to Brussels when they were in government’. The first line says:
‘Labour doesn’t trust the British people to have their say on Europe. Ed Miliband has said he would not commit to an In/Out referendum ‘now’ and will not confirm if Labour would hold one in the future.’
As an exercise in making Miliband uncomfortable by repeatedly arguing that refusing to commit to a referendum shows Labour doesn’t trust the voters, it all went rather well. Which is perhaps why a Number 10 source, asked after PMQs about some of the less-than-complimentary comments from European ministers such as French foreign minister Laurent Fabius about the PM’s speech, said the following:
‘It’s not always our job to worry too much about what foreign ministers are saying: it’s our job to worry about what the British people are saying.’
Which is an odd thing to say when you’ve spent the past few months trying to read the signals from European leaders before delivering a speech committing to a renegotiation.