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Ed Miliband & the referendum - skewered by Morton's Fork

By Paul Goodman
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Screen shot 2013-01-28 at 15.30.04Ed Miliband woke up to some horrible headlines this morning.  Which in itself means nothing one way or the other - that's the lot of party leaders.  But this particular set re-raised a problem that can't easily be solved. Boris Johnson steamed into the Labour leader over the EU and a referendum.  Well, that's par for the course, Boris being a Conservative politician as well as a Telegraph columnist, and all that.  But as well a pop from the Express there was also a piece from Vernon Bogdanor in the Guardian.

"There is a fundamental decision to be made and only the British people can make it. Europe has for too long been an elite project. The pro-Europeans have been content to win the argument in the corridors of power. That is why, since 1975, the argument has been lost by default. But the Labour party was formed to combat the power of elites, not to yield to it."

A great deal more of this will be heard for the next few weeks...I mean the next few months...I mean, well, for as long as Miliband keeps holding out against a referendum.  David Cameron will go after him on the issue at every opportunity  So will Nigel Farage.  And so, as the Bogdanor piece shows, will some on the left. The post Cameron EU-speech polls haven't been calamitous for Miliband, but they have undoubtedly been bad.  What is at stake is, in my view, more than just a judgement by voters about the EU issue.  There is also a judgement about character.
  • If Miliband doesn't concede a referendum at some point between now and the next election, he will be painted by Cameron, Farage, some on the left and others as the elitist from Hampstead who is frightened of giving the people their say.  There is a danger for him that this perception will leak from the EU compartment, so to speak, and colour voters' view of him more widely.  Some drew a strong connection in the last Parliament between Cameron's abandoment of a referendum after the Lisbon Agreement was signed off and the Tory slide in the polls that began at much the same time.
  • But if Miliband does concede that referendum, his faces another set of difficulties.  First, it will not exactly smack of strong leadership to fold over a poll after pressure.  But second (and more importantly), as Tim Montgomerie pointed out on Saturday, an In/Out referendum for Labour would be a nightmare in government.  A Prime Minister Miliband urging a Yes vote is a horse of a different colour from a Prime Minister Cameron supporting one.  In such circumstances, Cameron would have the support of Miliband (or his replacement).  Miliband could not be sure this would be the case with a new Tory leader.

This is a classic Morton's Fork dilemma for Miliband, and I am not at all sure which skewer he will choose to be impaled by.  I suspect that for the time being he will try to fudge it, claiming that Labour isn't set against a referendum - just against this one.  I wish him luck with that.  That's to say, I would wish him luck with that, were I in the business of doing so.