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INSIDE TRACK: How Ed Miliband had it both ways on Europe

OUR old thistly friend Europe returned centre stage to British politics this week when Ed Miliband, after a considerable amount of deliberation, decided to make a bold political move and adopt the "I agree with Nick" position on an in/out EU referendum.

In making his move, the important question arose on how to present it. A little bit of constructive ambiguity was needed to enable Mr Miliband and his colleagues to have the effect politicians often desire; having it both ways.

So, in deciding to announce the party's "conditions-based approach", one newspaper, read by the grassroots, emphasised how Mr Miliband was offering the British public a say with a promise to have an in/out referendum while another, read by business folk, stressed how he was ruling one out and they need have no worries about Britain's continued membership of the EU club. No doubt, the Labour leader was pleased by the conflicting coverage.

Yet the reality is that there is very little, if any, chance of him sanctioning a referendum in the 2015-2020 parliament should he occupy the Number 10 hotseat.

After months of some colleagues telling him he should bow to popular sentiment, fuelled by Ukip, and match David Cameron's promise of an in/out poll by the end of 2017, the Labour leader decided to just say No.

His position is that there would only be an in/out referendum if there were a significant transfer of powers to Brussels; which looks remarkably similar to the Liberal Democrat position. But Mr Miliband pointed out that, while possible, he did not think that would happen. Of course, any significant transfer of power could be vetoed by the UK Government in any case.

Politically, a Cameron-style pledge to an in/out referendum would have opened up Mr Miliband to the charge of weakness and flip-floppery given that for months and months he has been saying a 2017 poll would be a pointless distraction from the real priority - getting the economy back on track. By 2017 the UK, on current figures, will still be under austerity measures.

So, in the end, the Labour leader stuck to his guns but added a coda that he was not ruling out an in/out poll completely - but, in practical terms, he was.

The Opposition is keen to point out that Mr Cameron, having pledged such a referendum, has condemned any future Tory government to 18 months of internecine warfare reminiscent of those happy Major years of the 1990s. This, of course, is true and will be exacerbated by the Conservative leader's noble/foolhardy attempt to get all the other 27 members of the EU to agree to the UK's new terms, whatever they will be. Having just seen the back of one referendum on the future of the UK, the country, Swiss-like, will be plunged headlong into another one should Mr Cameron find himself back in Number 10.

And were there to be a Yes vote in this year's certain referendum and an independent Scotland joined the EU as a full member by spring 2016, then it could be, irony of ironies, that the leader saying No to Mr Cameron's attempt at fundamental Brussels reforms is that of the new 29th member state --Alex Salmond.

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