Ed Miliband’s interventions on Europe have a habit of serving only to bring David Cameron closer to his own backbenchers on the issue. On Monday, as Tory rebels lined up in their dozens to defy Cameron on an EU referendum, Miliband was the only one who managed to restore harmony on the Tory benches, uniting them in laughter when he said:
Apparently president Sarkozy – until recently his new best friend – had had enough of the posturing, lecturing and know-it-all ways. Let me say, Mr President, you spoke not just for France but for Britain as well.
At PMQs on Wednesday, a similar thing happened. Miliband had some good lines, including telling saying Cameron “was pleading with his backbenchers instead of leading for Britain in Europe”.
But Cameron was able to swat him away, quoting back Miliband’s own lines at him – the current favourite of the PM’s being that the Labour leader, when asked about whether Britain should join the euro, replied:
That depends on how long I’m prime minister for.
The Tory benches hooted, the party was at one – at least in the chamber.
But once eurosceptic Tory MPs have a chance to reflect on this session, they may start to feel uncomfortable about how evasive Cameron was on the question of repatriating powers from Brussels to London. Several times Miliband asked the question, and despite Cameron’s derisory rebuttals (he called Miliband a “complete mug” and a “hypocrite”), he never properly answered.
I revealed in this morning’s FT that the foreign office is looking particularly at ways Britain was being affected by the EU charter of fundamental rights, with a view to calling back some of those powers.
But the problem for many Tories is that this work is still very tentative. Cameron knows that starting to argue vociferously for a return of “competences” (as the EU calls them) would both alienate other European countries and his own Lib Dem coalition partners.
Tory backbenchers know that too, and are likely to become quickly frustrated if they don’t see action soon.