Douglas Alexander was touring television studios this morning explaining why he thought holding a referendum on Britain’s EU membership was a bad idea. After months of toying with the idea of copying the Tories in promising an in/out referendum in the next parliament, Labour seems to have finally decided that would be a bad idea.
This uncharacteristic decisiveness gave Ed Miliband a platform from which to attack David Cameron in today’s PMQs, and the Labour leader made the most of it. His first question was meant to embarrass the PM and amuse his own party, and it worked:
When the prime minister first became leader of the Conservative party he said their biggest problem was they spend far too much of their time banging on about Europe. Is he glad those days are over?
Cameron for his part is also pleased that Labour appears to have made his mind up about Europe, believing it gives him a clear dividing line and a chance to attack them for not being in touch with voters’ views. He hit back, saying:
We face a choice…. do you sit back and do nothing and tell the public to go hang?
The problem for Cameron is that he needs his party to weigh in after a climactic line like that, and on this subject, they are reluctant to do so. Until the very end, Tory backbenchers were largely silent – a sign of how little they trust the PM when it comes to Europe. They even at one point barracked Lord Heseltine, their own former deputy prime minister.
Miliband then asked Cameron one of the key questions in this debate:
Will Britain be in the European Union in five years’ time?
Later, he asked another question which Cameron couldn’t answer:
Is he giving the green light to Conservative ministers to campaign on different positions?
Cameron’s refusal to answer was telling, and gave Miliband the perfect setup to deliver his punchline:
It is the same old Tories, a divided party and a weak prime minister.
There is no particular reason Labour should be winning this argument. Cameron’s position is arguably closer to public opinion, and he should be able to embarrass Miliband for his refusal to ask the public their opinion on a major issue.
The problem for the PM, though, is that his party remains unwilling to back him fully, with many unconvinced of his euroscepticism. While this remains the case, Cameron looks relatively isolated, even if his position is more popular with the public.
This session also gave us a glimpse of the likely Tory reaction to Cameron’s speech on Friday – although on that occasion silence is probably the best he can hope for.