Ed Balls is politically smart and it hurts me to type those words; unlike the other Ed, Miliband the Younger, the Shadow Chancellor is quite good at anticipating Coalition bear traps and avoiding them.
Labour missed a golden opportunity to take the initiative on Europe by offering a referendum before the Prime Minister. The Tories were allowed to unify over the issue of the EU and quell any suggestions of unrest. But there is time to neutralise the debate; Labour could perform the u-turn, offer a referendum – but promise to lead a ‘no’ vote, if the UK cannot renegotiate membership. It would be risky to the small “l” liberal wing of the party who are passionately pro-European. The gamble would be worth it and has the potential to outflank the Conservatives.
Mr Balls used a newspaper interview to insist that Labour has not, in fact, ruled out a referendum and would be unwise to do so.
He said: “As long as we don’t allow ourselves to be caricatured as an anti-referendum party, which we’re not – we’ve absolutely not ruled out a referendum – I personally think that for now this is quite a comfortable position for us.”
Balls understands the consequences very well. Miliband was dangerously naive to rule out a referendum during PMQs several weeks ago; but the Shadow Cabinet are more or less slowly changing the mind of their leader. But make no mistake: Cameron is trusted by a significant margin by the public on European policy. Labour must challenge him soon. Or risk turning the General Election into a debate on the European Union.