Friday’s vote on James Wharton’s EU referendum bill is going to push the whole Europe question right back up the political agenda. The Tories will try and use it to highlight their support for a vote and the opposition of the other major parliamentary parties.
It will be very hard for Ed Miliband to go into the next election opposed to a referendum. It would look like he was opposed to giving the public a say. I also suspect that it will become almost politically impossible to oppose a referendum after the European Elections in 2014.
Patrick Wintour reports today that Labour is toying with the idea of either amending the Wharton Bill to back an instant In / Out vote or committing to one within the six months of the next election. The attraction of a pre-2015 referendum to Labour is that it knocks the scab off the Tories’ split over Europe.
But there is a danger to Miliband in backing an In / Out vote in which he is committed to campaigning for In. It would enable Cameron to attack him as the defender of the status quo, a man who doesn’t want to stop absurd EU waste and propaganda. One can easily imagine Cameron declaring that Miliband is too weak to even try and secure a better EU deal for Britain.
As I’ve said before, the European question threatens to split the Tories in the end. But I suspect that between now and 2015, Tory unity on it will just about hold and what to do about a referendum will cause more of a strategic headache for Labour. Oppose one outright and they risk the appearance of not trusting the people. Back In and an In / Out one and they look like defenders of the EU status quo.