March 27, 2013 6:20 pm

Mandelson attacks EU referendum move

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Peter Mandelson, Labour former business secretary, has said Ed Miliband would be “clinically insane” to offer at the next election to hold a referendum on Britain’s EU membership.

Lord Mandelson said such a pledge would be a big liability for the leader of the Labour party if he became prime minister and would commit him to “spending two years on a plane” trying to negotiate changes to Britain’s status in the EU.

The former EU trade commissioner said Mr Miliband knew the risks of tying his leadership to a “gimmicky” referendum and would not go along with the idea. He said a plebiscite would be “damaging, destructive and divisive”.

“The last thing an incoming Labour government would want – with such a daunting economic agenda facing it – would be to spend two years or more arguing about Britain’s EU membership,” he said.

He believes Mr Miliband will face down political pressure for Labour to commit to an in/out referendum, in spite of the fact that David Cameron has made a commitment to hold a vote on the issue in 2017.

Labour and Liberal Democrat officials say there is a tacit understanding between Mr Miliband and Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader and deputy prime minister, that the two parties will not match Mr Cameron’s promise.

Instead, they are expected to commit to holding a referendum only under the terms of the EU Act passed by the coalition, which provides a so-called “referendum lock” if a new treaty is passed that transfers power from London to Brussels.

Since neither Mr Miliband nor Mr Clegg expect such a treaty to be agreed during the next parliament, their stance would mean no referendum. Mr Cameron is offering a poll whether there is a new treaty or not.

Speaking at the same conference, organised by the French embassy and co-sponsored by the Financial Times and European Commission, Tory former leader Lord Howard said he believed Mr Cameron could negotiate a better deal for Britain and that he would campaign to stay in the EU on those terms.

Peter Kellner, president of YouGov, a pollster, said attitudes towards the EU had hardened since Mr Cameron made his offer of a referendum in January, making the outcome harder to call.

A YouGov survey this week found 44 per cent of people would vote to leave the EU in a referendum, while 33 per cent said they wanted to stay in. A poll soon after Mr Cameron’s January speech put the split at 39/37.

Meanwhile Louis Susman, the US ambassador, has repeated a strong preference in Washington for the UK to stay in the EU playing a key role in diplomatic, military and commercial decisions.

“The American people feel we would like them to stay in,” Mr Susman told Sky News. Peter Wilding, director of the British Influence group campaigning to keep Britain in the EU, said: “Britain has a duty to listen to, not ignore, its friends.”

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