Two separate conversations in Brussels this week, both with Brits, but with people of very different political persuasions, led me to the odd conclusion summed up by the title of this blog entry – Britain leaving the EU is more likely if Labour wins the UK general election in 2015 than if the Tories win it. Here’s why.
What happens if, against the odds, the Tories win a majority in 2015? This will have been achieved with a nominally pro-EU leader (either Cameron or a successor, but even a successor would be bound by the coalition until 2015), and to have managed to succeed in 2015 will return optimism to a more moderate view of Conservatism. The party will have committed to an In-Out EU referendum in 2017, will make some minor renegotiations with Brussels, and the referendum result will keep Britain in. Most of the Labour Party, in any case weak due to an election defeat, will also be arguing to keep Britain in, with a coalition of lefty unions and UKIP arguing the case for out.
What about Labour? The danger here starts perhaps 6 months before the 2015 election. While Ed Miliband has an anti-referendum position now, if the polls remain reasonably close prior to the 2015 election, will Labour really resist calling for such a vote and matching the Conservatives? In the end Labour wants a return to power, and while the party is nominally pro-EU, most of the party just doesn’t care much about the European Union. Win an election, or stick to a position on an EU referendum is no contest – the former wins.
Then what happens? If the Tories lose the 2015 election then they will replace their leader (if it’s still Cameron until 2015), or if it is someone else and that person survives the response will be to move towards UKIP – look at what has happened since the Eastleigh by election. At best the Tories in opposition would be split on the EU issue, at worst they could even end up with the leadership being in favour of the UK leaving the EU.
Labour in government will be lumbered with an EU referendum it did not really want, and will not fight it with gusto. If the party was worried enough about the polls prior to 2015 to call such a referendum, it is not going to be in a strong position in government from 2015 onwards. Furthermore, referendums fought early in a parliamentary term tend to be more likely to go the way the governing party wants. The longer the wait, the more likely a perverse result.
To put it another way: a weak Labour government facing a referendum in 2017 or 2018, with the Tories being more hardline on EU matters than they are now would be the worst possible combination of circumstances to ensure the UK stays in the EU.
Now of course all of this must still be considered unlikely. No party might win an overal majority, and might have to work with the nominally more pro-EU Lib Dems. Labour might hold its nerve and not demand a referendum, or it might campaign with gusto on the issue. A compelling pro-EU campaign might keep the UK in the EU in any case. But a Labour victory in 2015, with a commitment to hold a referendum made before the election, increases the likelihood of the UK leaving the EU through carelessness.