Two big questions remained after David Cameron’s landmark speech on Britain’s role in Europe this morning: would it do enough to please his eurosceptic backbenchers, and how would Ed Miliband respond?
We got the answer to both at PMQs. We know now that for the moment, Cameron has got his party off his back, and that Labour are not about to promise a referendum of their own.
The atmosphere in the Commons was electric as the leaders took their places. The Tory benches were packed with grinning faces – this looked like being a good day for Cameron, and so it proved. He even got a cheer for starting his first answer by saying:
I want Britain to be part of a successful European Union.
Later, veteran eurosceptic Bill Cash was called on. The fact that he asked a relatively non-hostile question (What would happen if there were changes to Britain’s relationship with the EU now?) must be chalked up as a success for the Tory leadership.
During his questions, Ed Miliband was trying to raise a fair point: What would the prime minister do if his renegotiation failed? Would he definitely vote to stay in the EU? Cameron ducked and weaved and failed to answer.
But it didn’t matter. With the prime minister given a pretty clear exposition of his own position this morning (albeit with certain questions left unanswered), both sides of the Commons wanted to know what Miliband’s response would be.
Eventually, he gave it:
No, we don’t want an in/out referendum.
The problem was, the answer had to be prised out of him. It was a far cry from last week’s session, when the Labour leader had the guts to take a strong position and defend it. What the Labour party needed to hear from Miliband today was as passionate a defence of the EU that the prime minister gave this morning, along with convincing reasons not to hold a referendum. Although he complained that “The clue’s in the name, it is for the prime minister to answer the questions,” today was much more about testing Miliband’s position – and it looked weak.
One final note: Cameron has managed to unite his party on Europe for now. But as we head towards a general election and people begin taking positions for the eventual referendum, expect it to get very bitter indeed.
The first challenge he will face from his own party is to insist that having a referendum is a “red line” in any coalition agreement, without which he will walk away from talks. Doing so will make a coalition with the Liberal Democrats much more difficult.