by Atul Hatwal
Judgement is a precious commodity. If a politician is seen to have it, they receive the benefit of the doubt from the media and colleagues alike. Their moves are viewed as part of a grand strategy, their competence taken on trust.
When they are seen to lose it, everything is questioned, loose threads are pulled and more often than not, much unravels.
Today, both Ed Miliband and David Cameron demonstrated desperately bad judgement. Both will pay a price. The immediate damage is to the Labour leader’s position, but over the coming months Cameron will be the one who suffers most.
For Ed Miliband, it is now a matter of when not if. When will he do a U-turn and commit Labour to an in/out referendum? The three options he has available leave him little choice.
Inside the leader’s inner circle there might have been some that still believed Labour’s current position of neither backing nor ruling out an in/out referendum was sustainable, but reality will be dawning. Witness Miliband’s own reaction in the heat of PMQs today when he seemed to rule out a referendum, only for Douglas Alexander and John Denham to walk back the commitment within hours.
Having no line to take is no way to run a party. Labour politicians trying to defend this position will be mercilessly skewered.
Alternately, permanently ruling out a referendum, as Miliband looked to have done, has the merit of certainty, but brings the certainty of unpopularity. Refusing to let the public have a say on such a contentious issue hardly locates Labour on the side of the people.
Which leaves supporting an in/out referendum as the only viable option.
Back in October I argued for a Labour commitment to a referendum to make the political weather and cast Cameron as weak when he was forced follow suit. Now Miliband will follow Cameron and will be the one to look weak.
For David Cameron, the headlines and immediate reviews make for happy reading. Tactically he has wrong-footed Labour and the Tories give the impression of unity. But this will not last.
At PMQs Cameron pointedly refused to define any red lines for his negotiations with the EU, not saying what would prompt him to vote to leave the European Union. Just as Labour refusing to take a position on a referendum is unsustainable for the next two years, so is Cameron’s current stance.
This will be made very clear to the Tory leadership over the coming weeks. Rather than be pacified by the referendum pledge, the eurosceptic rebels on the Tory backbenches will be emboldened. As sure as night follows day, their next step will be to harry Cameron until he is forced to give greater detail on his criteria for exit.
For those of us who recall the early to mid nineties, there is more than a touch of deja vu to today’s events.
There were many times John Major would shift to the right on Europe and be hailed on the day by his right-wing. Remember the opt-out he secured on the social chapter twenty odd years ago? Great headlines, supportive quotes from happy backbenchers, but it wasn’t enough. Nothing ever was. Before long the cycle of bitter briefing and agitation for an even more eurosceptic policy was resumed.
The Tory right want to withdraw from Europe, nothing will change that or stop them until it is the policy of their party. David Cameron has just tied himself to the tracks and given the green signal for the eurosceptic express to roll over his leadership.
Today Ed Miliband undoubtedly came off worst. Labour’s disarray in resolving a clear position following the speech suggests a political operation that is far from assured. As a result, when the going gets tough for Labour, doubts on the leader’s grip will surface sooner and be voiced more forcefully.
But, once Labour has flipped on the referendum, the substantive difficulties over Europe will be exclusively with the Tories. The Tory rows over Europe are only just beginning. And as they get worse, more and more of the prime minister’s broader agenda will come under question. The loose threads will be pulled, just as they were for John Major.
Atul Hatwal is editor at Uncut