If Labour has the guts on Europe, it can derail Tory conference and David Cameron’s leadership

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


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12 Responses to “If Labour has the guts on Europe, it can derail Tory conference and David Cameron’s leadership”

  1. swatantra says:

    Say No to a Referendum. This would be opportunism at its worst if EdM did this.
    I wouldn’t trust the Great British Public with a bargepole on the European Referendum issue. Anyway, we had that Referendum in 1970′s, and wouldn’t want to go over the same old ground again.

  2. Henrik says:

    “I wouldn’t trust the Great British Public with a bargepole on the European Referendum issue” – thanks for that, swatantra, there, in one single sentence, is everything which is wrong with the Labour Party – and which you guys need to sort out before any proper democrat should consider voting for you.

  3. Anthony Zacharzewski says:

    Unbelievably foolish, damaging and self-defeating for both country and party. I literally cannot believe that this is a serious topic of discussion.

    Labour moving first would give Cameron an excuse to swing behind the extreme of his party and campaign for an out (whatever his personal beliefs) and would unite the main governing party around what is currently a hard right position. Do you think people care enough about the EU to reject the Conservatives because they have become better-off-outers? I don’t – I don’t think they give a monkey’s about Europe, or understand what’s at stake. It’s a political bubble conversation.

    What’s more, to those who are paying any attention, it would be obvious cynical opportunism, and a huge turn off for people who are looking for authenticity in politicians. It would kill any advantage that Miliband got from his conference speech.

    And what about the large number of internationalists and left-liberals in the party who want to stay in the EU, and indeed deepen our relationship with it? It’s not going to float their boat to have a referendum on “status quo or out” when what they want is “more Europe”. Ed can campaign for the status quo all he likes, but by moving first on a referendum he’d lock the Labour party’s position down on Europe at a time when the Union is moving faster and in more unpredictable ways than ever before.

    A temporary and doubtful partisan gain in return for sticking our country’s future on the roulette wheel of a referendum (with Murdoch and Dacre leaning on the gaming table). No thanks.

  4. Robert says:

    It is up to the public for god sake, we have been stopped from voting by Blair who knew better.

    Politicians know best, because the public cannot be trusted, yet we have to vote for a bunch of politicians who put us into this mess.

  5. paul barker says:

    You would be prepared to risk wrecking the British economy & giving a massive boost to the far right just to win an election ?
    Labour in a nutshell.

  6. Rallan says:

    “I wouldn’t trust the Great British Public with a bargepole on the European Referendum issue.”

    To hell with you Swatantra, a referendum is coming whether you like it or not. You’re going to have your nose rubbed in democracy. I hope it makes you retch.

    “Anyway, we had that Referendum in 1970?s, and wouldn’t want to go over the same old ground again.”

    That was way before my time, and was about a Common Market, not to a Federal European Union. The Great British Public must and will be asked for consent before such a fundamental change to British sovereignty can be made.

    “It would be from Ed Miliband and simply state: the Labour party backs an in-out referendum on Europe.”

    Ed Miliband has already said he thinks a referendum would be bad at this time. I’m not his biggest fan but don’t think he’d do something he clearly thinks is wrong for Britain just to score some cheap political points.

  7. Hi Atul

    I normally nod in agreement to your contributions on this website, but this one does raise some serious concerns. Deciding to withdraw from the EU (I assume that is what you mean by an in/out referendum) would be the single biggest strategic foreign policy decision a British government has taken since the withdrawal from Empire.

    Removing ourselves from such a large free trade area, on which so many of our exports depend, will have dramatic consequences for the British economy and in particular manufacturing jobs, not to mention the implications for all the British citizens who work in Europe, and indeed the European citizens who work here. Surely it would make more sense to come to a decision as to what was in the national interest before demanding a referendum?

    I do see your point about accepting the democratic will of the public, but at the moment the only things people hear about the EU are from the Euro-sceptic press and news reports about the Euro-zone crisis. Do you think the case for constructive engagement with Europe will get a proper hearing? Are you willing to accept the consequences of a referendum if it does not? Sadly this is a classic example of an issue on which we in the Labour party have failed to take a clear position and make an argument for it.

    You are of course absolutely right that a pledge for an in/out referendum would cause havoc with the Tory conference. But it could do real and lasting damage to the UK as well. If we are to make Europe an issue, we should be much clearer about the outcome we desire before jumping in.

  8. Rallan says:

    “You are of course absolutely right that a pledge for an in/out referendum would cause havoc with the Tory conference.”

    None of the mainstream party elites want a referendum (they don’t give a crap what anyone else wants, as we all know).

    That being the case, do you honestly think they haven’t discussed this and come up with a strategy? You can be certain that an agreement has been reached behind closed doors.

  9. swatantra says:

    Did you see the fantastic reception that Boris got at Bm New Street? I was almost expecting for the band to strike up ‘Hail, the Conquering Hero Comes’.
    If anything is going to de-rail Dave’s attempt to restore the hand of firm Govt after a period of U-turns and omnishambles then its Boris’s intervention; and he hasn’t even spoken yet. The Tories are on the road to defeat, and Boris is our secret weapon.

  10. Hi Rallan

    I’m really not convinced that the elites of the major parties have discussed this with each other, if that’s what you mean. Even if they did, are you sure they could come to an agreement? What would it be? Without some agreement on the desired outcome I do not see how they could have a strategy.

    If anything does unite them I would guess it would be a desire to wait and see what the outcome of the Euro-zone crisis would be and decide then, when we have a clearer picture of what the EU we are supposed to be in/out actually looked like.

  11. Rallan says:

    ” If anything does unite them I would guess it would be a desire to wait and see what the outcome of the Euro-zone crisis would be and decide then, when we have a clearer picture of what the EU we are supposed to be in/out actually looked like.”

    What unites them is the desire not to have an outcome. They ALL want to avoid the issue for as long as possible.

    That’s why they are all impossibly slippery and evasive on the subject. They never say what they will do (or when). They only say what they won’t do in the short term.

  12. uglyfatbloke says:

    The EU/economy thing is not so simple as either side like to think. We do trade a lot with the EU, but they sell us much, much more than we sell them, so being ‘out’ may not be so significant as people think.
    OTH, EU leads the world in product safety etc and plenty of non-EU countries comply with EU regs, so being ‘out’ may not make much difference in terms of production values.
    The EU relationship is not simply a treaty that can be abjured, it involves a massive amount of shared legislation and other relationships that could take a lon. long time to disentangle.
    Of course it may not come to a referendum. Contrary to what the media and the parties tell us, the United Kingdom is the product of a treaty between two – and only two – countries. If Scotland votes ‘Yes’ in 2014, the UK will no longer exist and both parties might find themselves out of the EU.
    In practice of course both parties will be in the EU if only because there is no EU mechanism for expulsion, but certainly both parties will have to have extensive negotiations about the nature of their membership – probably the end of UK rebates and (for Scotland ) entry to Schengen. That might be too steep a price for swithering MPs – and voters – who don’t much like the EU.

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