EU debate: Miliband wriggles off Naughtie's kebab skewer

Labour leader desperately avoids answering big EU question: will Labour allow a referendum?

Column LAST UPDATED AT 12:51 ON Thu 17 Jan 2013

LABOUR leader Ed Miliband was accused of muddle this morning after failing to come clean on Labour's policy on a EU referendum, just 24 hours before David Cameron makes his speech in the Netherlands on Britain's position in Europe.

Miliband waffled and ducked and dived on Radio 4's Today programme over whether he would commit Labour to promise a referendum on changes to Britain's role in the EU, when he was asked for clarity by presenter Jim Naughtie.

Ed spent most of his interview attacking Cameron for promising an "in/out" referendum tomorrow - which no-one believes Cameron will offer. Indeed, Naughtie accused Miliband of putting up a "straw man".

Naughtie: "You can't have it both ways. The Prime Minister is not saying tomorrow he is going to have an in-out referendum. He is saying he is going to renegotiate the way it works, then he is going to put it to the British people. You argue you want clarity. If you want clarity from him, we deserve clarity from you. Would you contemplate a referendum on Britain's relationship with the EU if you were PM?"

Miliband: "Clearly there is legislation on the books which we don't propose repealing which says if there is a transfer of powers [to Brussels] there would be a referendum… Let's answer your question about an in/out referendum."

Naughtie: "No – it wasn't about an in/out referendum."

It was almost as bad as the time in 1989 when Neil Kinnock complained of being "bloody kebabbed" by Naughtie on Radio 4's World at One.

After Ed was wheeled off this morning, BBC political editor Nick Robinson came on and tried to explain to Naughtie why Miliband had behaved the way he had.

Robinson said: "You asked for clarity about Labour's view on a referendum and you certainly didn't get it because he does not wish to rule out having a referendum if he becomes PM. Indeed, I don't think he wants to rule out a referendum in his manifesto if the pressure really builds."

Robinson is not alone. Labour-supporting blogger Dan Hodges (son of Labour MP Glenda Jackson) tweeted: "Is there seriously anyone in Labour who thinks Ed is going to get away with another 12-18 months of this… Ed hasn't got a position on a referendum. Might as well just say so."

Fraser Nelson, editor of the Tory-supporting Spectator, tweeted: "That R4 interview suggests @Ed_Miliband is the David Beckham of British politics: when he talks, it spoils it."

Miliband did manage to announce two clear developments of policy: he won't lead Britain into the euro if Labour wins the next election and he won't be repealing the existing legislation guaranteeing a referendum if there is a transfer of power to Brussels from Westminster. But beyond that, Radio 4 listeners emerged none the wiser.

Of course, Miliband has a difficult game to play, trying to sound like a statesman who has the country's best interests at heart (i.e. keeping Britain in Europe) while pandering to the growing euro-scepticism of the British people. He is attacking the prospect of an in/out referendum now because it is an easy target.

He warned again in an interview in the Financial Times this morning that he believes that by hinting at an in/out referendum now, Cameron is leading Britain to an economic cliff-edge. Or, as he put it on the Today programme, Cameron is being "dragged by a neuralgic Conservative Party" to the exit for Britain from Europe. It is, said Miliband, "a hopeless negotiating strategy" and one, he added, which would inflict "real damage on our economy".

Miliband's warning will be echoed by the Lib Dem Business Secretary, Vince Cable, in Oxford later today. Cable's aides have briefed the Daily Telegraph that he is going to say: "Any reopening of the whole question of British membership creates additional uncertainty at a time when there is already fragile economic confidence in the wake of the financial crisis. This uncertainty is potentially driving away investors and the jobs they create."

The Telegraph also claims that any Cabinet minister calling explicitly for Britain to leave the EU after the Cameron's speech in the Netherlands tomorrow will be for the high jump. According to the paper, Cameron has made it clear he will be saying that he believes Britain should remain in the EU and has warned cabinet members "that they must back the government's position on staying in the EU".

It is not clear whether breaking the line will result in an automatic sacking, but it can be the only logical position if Cameron is to maintain his claim that he can renegotiate Britain's role in Europe while remaining a member. Ministers should be careful. ·