by Sophie Lambert Russell
In October 2011 David Cameron, along with Ed Miliband, voted against and straight in or out of the EU referendum so why now the change?
Support for the Conservatives is falling; with many disillusioned Tory voters leaning towards UKIP, now arguably the third most popular party in the UK (according to YouGov in the Sun last week anyway). In a rather desperate attempt to claw back support, Cameron has performed yet another U-Turn: possibly the most talked about of his time in office.
Unsurprisingly the Tory right have welcomed this move but others have criticised the prime minister for being weak and driven by the eurosceptics in his party, not by the interests of the country. Undoubtedly the Conservatives will appear united for a short while but this will not last, the backbenchers will not be placated for long by the referendum pledge and will soon ramp up the pressure, creating a more divided party than ever and forcing Cameron’s hand.
However we mustn’t jump the gun. Cameron’s promises of a referendum comes with so many ‘ifs’ and yesterday’s speech left crucial questions unanswered. He is likely to have a bigger fight with other EU members than within his own parliament. Ed Miliband characterised the in/out referendum as ‘a huge gamble designed to keep his fractious party together’ and he is not wrong. We need to work with EU members, not dictate from upon high as Cameron wants to do. Although Merkel said that she is willing to discuss a reform both France and Germany have made it clear that the UK cannot “cherry-pick” the EU laws which suit them and I am not in the least bit surprised.
It seems to me that when it comes to Europe, Cameron wants to have his cake and eat it too and while there is no problem with being ambitious there will be a lot of resistance along the way. The question of what will happen if the EU leaders do not give Cameron a new deal on the UK’s role in Europe still remains unanswered.
Cameron has stated that he will hold negotiations only after he is re-elected, and it is likely that this will form the backbone of the Conservative manifesto and election campaign. If no deal is negotiated will he encourage people to vote to leave the EU? Unlikely – it is too important. What is more feasible is that he will scrap the referendum (harking back to when John Major scrapped his policy to opt out of the EU) and further damage the reputation of politicians among the public.
However before we get too cocky, and Labour rush in to save the day, it must be recognised that the in/out referendum raises serious problems for Ed Miliband’s party as well. The fact that Cameron was going to announce a referendum was no secret and as Atul Hatwal writes (here) Labour should have picked up the ball sooner. They are playing severely on the back foot. The party’s current position of neither backing nor ruling out an in/out referendum is not sustainable and it would be political suicide for Ed Miliband to deny the British public the opportunity to vote on our involvement in such an influential and controversial political arena.
Whether good or bad, Cameron’s speech on the EU yesterday will set the nature of British politics for years to come. Both parties must tread carefully in order not to damage relationships with key business and trading partners and, most importantly, the British public.
Sophie Lambert Russell is a Labour party member