The first week back in January is always a miserable one. Commuters stare miserably out of rain-streaked train windows contemplating the end of the festive season. More couples turn to divorce or relationship counselling than at any other time of the year. George Osborne did try his best to cheer us all up on Monday by merrily announcing that he’ll need to cut a further £25bn from public spending in the next parliament, but we need something more than that in the worst week of the year.
Which is why it is so cheering that #LetBritainDecide is back in Parliament today. Yes, now it’s the chance of peers to discuss that wonderful Wharton Bill, the private members’ bill for an EU referendum in 2017. Unfortunately, if you were nourishing genuine hopes of seeing this bill make it onto the statute book, you might sink back into that January depression. Over 70 peers are signed up to speak, and the slew of amendments planned make its chances of survival very slim indeed.
But, of course, that’s not really the point of this Bill: it was rushed out during a febrile period in Tory relations and was designed as much to unite the party and calm everyone down as it was to offer a legislative guarantee of a referendum (smart alecs will point out that a legislative guarantee between parliaments is impossible, but a new government would have had to repeal the bill introducing the 2017 referendum, which would be a political nightmare). The Bill has done that, and now it can serve another purpose of giving peers something to feast on for a few weeks.
But those still wanting to wring the last drops of political benefit from this legislation before it descends into the Lords quagmire are making sure that they point out this morning that Labour is still not offering a referendum at all. Lord Mandelson was out putting the ‘No’ case against holding one on the Today programme this morning, saying:
‘Our priority this year should be to put our people in the most important posts, reflecting the policy priorities which are most important for British interests. That is what we should be doing in 2014, and not, as I say, standing on the periphery bellowing our demands and grandstanding to that UKIP gallery, which preoccupies so many in the Conservative party.’
But if Labour doesn’t offer a referendum before the European elections, what can it offer voters? In the Spectator politics column this week, I wrote that Labour is currently mulling its own plans for reform to freedom of movement focusing on the right to work in Britain, not the right to live here. Last night on Question Time, Chuka Umunna dropped this into the discussion about immigration, saying:
‘I think there is one important thing about the European Union. The founders of the European Union had in mind free movement of workers, not free movement of jobseekers and undoubtedly we do have to work with our European partners to deal with that.’
I’ve heard that this could be a serious offer from Labour to voters in lieu of an EU referendum offer. It’s a big deal: freedom of movement is a cornerstone of the European Union. But there are many in Labour who think that it still isn’t enough when one party is offering to #LetBritainDecide.