Left Watch

« Charities should operate according to the Queensland Rules | Main | The Guardian kicks Balls when he’s down »

Labour and the Lib Dems stake out their positions ahead of David Cameron’s Europe speech

By Peter Hoskin
Follow Peter on Twitter

EUToday’s the day for pre-emptive strikes. Ed Miliband, Douglas Alexander, Nick Clegg and Vince Cable are all spread across the airwaves, attacking David Cameron’s Europe speech in advance of its delivery tomorrow. And so their main points of difference with the PM have become clearer, but also — more neglected — their similarities. Here’s a quick run-down of both:

i) All three party leaderships agree with the “referendum lock”. As you’ll know, the Coalition Agreement contains a policy whereby “any proposed future [European Union] treaty that transferred areas of power, or competences, would be subject to a referendum on that treaty.” This is something that Labour has previously spoken out against, describing it — among many other epithets — as a “political gesture”. But, as the New Statesman’s George Eaton points out, Ed Miliband now appears to have changed his mind. Speaking on the Today programme earlier, the Labour leader admitted that he would not repeal the legislation.

ii) All three party leaderships agree that the status quo can’t exactly prevail. We’re familiar with the Tories talking in terms of “repatriation” and “reform”, but now, thanks to the current debate, the other parties are increasingly having to do likewise. In a speech today, Vince Cable will advocate “far-reaching reform” of the European Union. And, in his Today programme interview, Mr Miliband made the firmer point that “there are areas where Britain actually needs some powers back.” Of course, no party leadership is really yet talking about specifics — which is where the main differences will lie — but at least they’re singing vaguely similar tunes.

In that respect, there’s some parallel between the current EU debate and that around the deficit. All of the parties agree with deficit reduction in general, but disagree about scope and means. The question, in both the European and fiscal contexts, is whether the public see Labour’s position as appealingly moderate, or wishy-washy.

iii) Only one party is likely to promise an in/out referendum for now. Putting aside the possibility of a referendum brought about the “lock mechanism”, it looks as though only one party is currently set to promise the public an in/out choice in the next Parliament — and that, of course, is the Tories. Today, Ed Miliband is pushing the business argument against such a referendum: that even the prospect of an ‘Out’ vote is equivalent to “a closed-for-business sign hanging around Britain”. Whilst Vince Cable is paying more attention to the diplomatic implications: “There are many in Europe, notably in France, who would be happy to see the back of the UK,” he is set to warn, “and even the UK’s allies on market reform, notably Germany, have limited political capital to spend getting a more favourable arrangement for the UK.”

This leaves David Cameron in a rather strange position. The scrap that he faces with his official political opponents is over the smaller order question of whether there should be a referendum. Whereas the fight he may get into with the Conservative Party is over something bigger: whether the UK should leave the EU or not.