David Cameron’s statement on the European council was another example of how easy it is at the moment for the Tories to portray Ed Miliband as a weak leader. He made it perfectly clear what he wanted those watching to take away by stealing Tony Blair’s ‘weak, weak, weak’ line in 1997 when attacking John Major (which is well worth watching again). Today the PM told the Commons that Ed Miliband’s position on Europe could be summed up in three words: ‘weak, weak, weak’. He said:
‘What I thought was interesting about the right hon. Gentleman’s response was that we heard not a word about the referendum that we are going to discuss and debate on Friday. I think I know why. The right hon. Gentleman has said that he is not in favour of a referendum; the shadow Chancellor has said that it is pretty stupid not to have a referendum; his chief adviser has said that it is conceivable that they might have a referendum—mind you, his chief adviser thinks all sorts of things are conceivable. Now the Labour leader has a new approach, announced in The Sunday Times—that Labour is not going to talk about a referendum. I think I can sum up the right hon. Gentleman’s policy in three words: weak, weak, weak.’
The problem is that for as long as Labour either opposes an EU referendum, or abstains on votes providing for one, as it will on Friday, Cameron can continue to call the party ‘weak, weak, weak’. An abstention is not a position of strength, no matter how hard spinners try to dress it up as one by saying they’re more interested in jobs and growth. It is a dither. Yet the party cannot oppose a referendum outright because it is aware of the electoral damage this would incur. Hence the weak dither.
This make it even more difficult for the party to resist committing to a referendum. But Labour can only move into a position of strength on this policy by timing the announcement with precision. If the party does decide that it wants a referendum, it should take lessons from the way Number 10 dealt with John Baron’s Queen’s Speech amendment vote and do precisely the opposite. The Conservatives published the draft referendum bill two days before the vote in a manner that to all intents and purposes appeared weak and rushed, not planned at all. Labour will need to find a time to make any referendum pledge that stops it from appearing panicked, panicked, panicked as well.