by Atul Hatwal
For an opposition party, so much is out of its control. Governments do, while oppositions’ talk. Only when the government fumbles an issue does the opposition become temporarily relevant. Even bad governments eventually manage to pull themselves together, work out a policy to announce and seize back the initiative.
The issues which cannot be fixed are few and far between.
But when it comes to Tory governments, there is always Europe. On this, the political gift which keeps on giving, Labour has a unique opportunity; the party just needs the guts to take it.
David Cameron’s backbenches are already fractious. Over 100 backbenchers have voted against three line whips on issues ranging from privatisation of the forests to Lords reform to, well, Europe.
But, what has been missing is a consistent, structured shadow opposition on the backbench that marshals the discontented. Yes there have been revolts, but each insurrection has had a different cast of central characters.
This could all change. The dog days of the 1990s, with a permanent caucus of committed Tory rebels coordinating the chaos, are just one announcement away.
It would be from Ed Miliband and simply state: the Labour party backs an in-out referendum on Europe.
The moment Labour swings behind this referendum, Cameron would be forced to follow suit. The idea that he could resist the pressure from the press and his own side is inconceivable.
From the moment Cameron caved in on this, he would be on the run. A political turning point comparable to Brown’s decision not to call an election in Autumn 2007.
The dynamic on the Tory backbenches would be transformed.
The personal animosities between the modern generation of Eurosceptics such as Douglas Carswell, and the older vintage like Bill Cash would have to be subsumed into the common unifying struggle: to secure the Conservative party for withdrawal.
David Cameron would back staying in Europe, he’s already said he would. A sizeable minority, perhaps even a majority of his own troops, would be opposed. Everything the government attempted would be viewed through the prism of the struggle on Europe.
It would mean the Tory backbenches would once again have a single rebel campaign structure with a full whipping operation and cohesive political leadership.
The conflict would be binary. All or nothing. Either the Conservative leadership would shift to the rebels’ position, or the rebels would inflict defeat after defeat on the government’s programme.
It wouldn’t necessarily start like that. It didn’t in the 1990s. But as positions became entrenched and the stakes raised ever higher, it would be impossible for the Eurosceptics not to exercise the ultimate power they wield: to prevent the government implementing its programme unless their demands are met.
First the gun would be unholstered, with dark parliamentary warnings; then repeatedly discharged into various parts of the government’s legislative body until it was finally held to the prime minister’s head with the ultimate threat: a no confidence vote.
An older generation of Labour whips and advisers can well remember the behaviour of the 1990s Eurosceptics as they became more and more willing to rebel on the thinnest of pretexts, as long as Europe could nominally be worked into the motion.
The rebels would be tacitly supported by fellow travellers in the ranks of the government. Whisperers who would say that there is more that unites the Tory party than divides it, that all of the important work a Tory government can achieve should not be thrown away over a single issue. Easier to switch positions on Europe and unify the party.
The collateral damage of losing the Lib Dems and ruling as a minority government would be a small price to pay for unity and a true Tory agenda. David Cameron and George Osborne would be casualties of war. Everyone would know the government would soon fall, but better that than endless division.
All of this beckons if Labour can seize the moment and commit to the referendum.
But, too many voices at the moment within the party leadership are worried. Scared of the political upheaval when Labour already has a solid opinion poll lead. Afraid that voters would actually decide to leave the European Union.
On both counts courage is required.
Regardless of the debatable strength of the opinion poll lead, making the political weather by backing a referendum is an opportunity oppositions’ rarely have. As a party we should be confident in our ability to make the most of it.
On the substantive issue about Britain’s future in Europe, a political alliance of centrist Conservatives, Labour and the Lib Dems, backed by business and the unions, campaigning in the national interest should win the vote.
And if the vote was lost, then as hard as it would be to take, that would nevertheless be the will of the people.
Many in the Labour party recall the 2009 conference. It is universally remembered as the worst in decades. At the heart of this dismal experience was the announcement by the Sun that it was switching to the Tories, politically orchestrated with the Tories, the night before Gordon Brown’s speech.
It was devastating.
If Ed Miliband were to be courageous and back a referendum, he could do worse than prep the press release for Tuesday evening.
Atul Hatwal is editor at Uncut