How well did the party leaders handle the EU debate?

The great EU debate is over. For all the Europhiles out there, we can rest a little easier over the coming days, knowing Britain’s future in Europe is safe for a few more years at least. For the Eurosceptics, they’ll smoulder away in the corner for a while before contemplating their next plan of action to rid us of the terrible evil that is EU regulation. Funnily enough, that plan of action may well turn out to be a rerun of the last one, as already a new e-petition has been established demanding another debate on a referendum; fingers crossed and this could become a bit of an annual tradition.

Of course, the debate as a contest was always going to be a complete non-event. With all three main parties whipping their MPs into line there was no chance that the motion would succeed. Instead the interest was mainly in the party-politics of it all, as everyone tried to decipher who had played their cards best.

For once, Nick Clegg was able to emerge relatively unscathed from a political fight. Despite the fact that in their 2010 election manifesto, the Lib Dems promised to hold an in/out referendum on the EU, this was only ever supposed to demonstrate their commitment to creating a more democratic environment than that which existed under the previous Labour government. The Lib Dems are still the most consistently pro-European party and were, and presumably still are, committed to fighting to keep us in the EU should a referendum ever actually occur.

That no one really seems to care therefore that the Lib Dems’ decision to help vote down the motion on Monday amounts to yet another broken promise can be attributed to two main reasons: firstly, this vote was seen as much as anything else as being a test of unity of the parties and also the coalition government; only one Lib Dem MP rebelled, and the coalition government remained united in their opposition and on that basis it’s hard to argue that Nick Clegg came out of the vote looking like a weak party leader. Secondly, regardless of what the Lib Dems did, and indeed the Labour party too, they were never going to be the main story.

The central characters in this story were always going to be the Conservatives. It is true, as some Tories have pointed out, that some reviews were out prior to the debate even beginning, but then that’s only because this is a play we’ve all seen before. It may be the case, as the Telegraph tried to argue, that the Tories are united on the issue of Europe like never before, but as the debate clearly demonstrated, how they go about renegotiating our relationship with Europe is not something they can agree on.

For David Cameron it was a lose-lose situation, but that’s a position that he himself contributed to putting himself in; he may have talked a good game over Europe prior to being elected Prime Minister, yet he always failed to convince many within his party of the purity of his disregard for the EU. Regardless of how hard he whipped his MPs on the issue, the moment this debate was triggered, Cameron would’ve known it was going to expose how far apart his vision for the EU is compared to a majority of his fellow Conservative MPs.

But if it was a lose-lose situation for Cameron, did it really matter what position the Labour party took up? If this was all a test about party unity, and indeed that is how many commentators have chosen to look at it, then Ed Miliband can afford to feel relatively pleased that only 19 MPs rebelled against his directive in comparison to the 81 Tory MPs who defied Cameron in voting for the motion. Though one might more accurately remark that rather than showing that Miliband has a stronger command of his party than Cameron, it actually just reflects the fact that the Labour party is far less divided on the issue of Europe.

But then if the Labour party is more united on the issue, what did Ed Miliband really have to lose in allowing his MPs a free vote? Any accusations of weak leadership by Ed would still have been side-lined because of the sheer size of the rebellion against Cameron, the motion still would’ve been defeated regardless, and the Labour party could have realistically portrayed themselves as the only major party willing to give its MPs the chance to represent the views of its constituents rather than their party.

In reality though, no one is concerned with analysing whether Ed took the right decision in forcing his MPs to vote with him. The story is all about the Tory party bickering over Europe again. As John Prescott remarked earlier this week, along with rising unemployment and the Stone Roses back in town, it could be 1992 all over again.

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Posted on October 26, 2011, in Comment, Parliamentary Business and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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