Ed Miliband is clearly feeling public pressure for Brexit in Doncaster in a way that Nick Clegg is not in Sheffield Hallam

Ed Miliband is clearly feeling public pressure for Brexit in Doncaster in a way that Nick Clegg is not in Sheffield Hallam

May 8th 2015 will surely go down as David Cameron’s high point in politics. On that day not only did he learn that he had won an unlikely Commons majority for the Conservative Party, but the leaders of the parties that came second, third and fourth in the general election popular vote all resigned live on television.

Since then the fortunes of those three men – Ed Miliband, Nigel Farage and Nick Clegg – have changed markedly. As indeed have the fortunes of David Cameron. Following the Brexit referendum win there is no disputing that Nigel’s career is in better nick than Dave’s or Ed’s and for that matter better nick than Nick’s.

Being the only senior British politician to back Donald Trump is the icing on Nigel’s Brexit cake and he is currently ubiquitous in the political media, while David Cameron’s political career is over and he has become the ghost who is not even at the feast.

But today I want to focus on the varying fortunes and postures of those other two principals from the 2015 election: Miliband and Clegg. What interests me here is their behaviour around the matter on which they shared both an opinion and an intensity of opinion: that Britain’s natural place is at the heart of the EU.

After Cameron was forced, in January 2013, to make his In-Out referendum pledge, we in UKIP felt strongly that Miliband would be forced to follow suit. We were already picking up signs that not matching the pledge would cost Labour working class votes in many seats. But Miliband did not budge from his opposition to a referendum, soaking up Cameron attacks in the Commons for his refusal to entrust the decision to the people.

This was in marked contrast to the approach taken by Tony Blair towards the single currency when John Major had been forced to pledge a referendum on entry by the threat of Sir James Goldsmith’s Referendum Party. Blair, for whom the pursuit of power was everything, swiftly matched Major’s pledge to hold a plebiscite in the event of any government recommendation to join the euro.

But Ed Miliband would not budge on matching Cameron’s In-Out referendum pledge despite efforts by several of those close to him to make him do so. And the reason he would not budge was simply that he was ideologically committed to Britain’s EU membership and did not wish to put it in jeopardy. He must have known when taking this stance that it was costing him political capital, but he calculated – wrongly as it happens – that it was capital he could afford to spend on a priority that was of the utmost importance to him.

As a graduate of the College of Europe in Bruges, a former European Commission staffer and a one-time proselytiser for UK membership of the euro, there can be no doubting the intensity of Nick Clegg’s commitment to European political integration either.

In the wake of Leave winning the referendum on June 23rd, the shared outlook of both Miliband and Clegg appeared to continue.  Early in the autumn both men were active in attempts by Remainers to stitch together a cross-party alliance designed to tag on conditions to the triggering of Article 50 and thus thwart the natural desire of Leavers to deliver a proper Brexit that involved leaving the single market.

However, in the last couple of weeks the approaches of the two men have diverged markedly. Clegg, who is now his party’s (anti) Brexit spokesman, is openly talking of voting against the triggering of Article 50, demanding a second referendum on the precise terms of departure from the EU and helping to turn his party into the natural choice of Brexit deniers. Miliband, on the other hand, has rowed back massively, telling ITV’s Peston programme on Sunday that there should be no question of a second plebiscite because: “We had a referendum and we have got to respect the result. We are leaving the EU.”

So what explains Miliband dismounting from his Remain-at-all-costs mount while Clegg continues to ride the integrationist high horse?

I suggest that the answer, which tells us a lot about the way the Brexit process is likely to unfold within Parliament, is to be found not at Westminster but in the gritty surroundings of South Yorkshire, where both men have their parliamentary constituencies.

Miliband represents a typical South Yorkshire industrial heartlands seat, Doncaster North. Leave chalked up a vote share there of around 70% in the referendum. During the 2015 general election, UKIP came from a low base to snatch second place in the seat, with almost 9,000 votes. While Miliband is still sitting on a majority of 11,000, he no doubt has had cause to reflect that there is a substantial Tory vote that UKIP could potentially squeeze next time. And as a keen student of international events, Miliband will also no doubt be aware of how open were blue collar voters in rust belt states to the idea of changing their votes from establishment Democrat to insurgent Republican in the US presidential race.

Clegg, on the other hand, represents Sheffield Hallam. It may be just a few miles up the road, but it could hardly be more different. The seat is one of the wealthiest in the entire north of England and Labour has never held it. Until the late 1990s, it was regarded as safe Tory territory. It has become a redoubt of affluent academics and public sector professionals and the local newsagents sell more copies of the Guardian than they do of the Sun. So while Sheffield in total voted Leave by the narrowest of margins, Hallam can be deduced to have very heavily favoured Remain.

Clegg has a much smaller majority than Miliband – only a little over 2,000 – but may view his main opponent at the next election as the third placed Tories rather than Corbynite Labour. And unlike in Doncaster, the demographics could hardly be less propitious for a UKIP insurgency. We must also factor in that he may not actually be that bothered about being an MP after 2020 anyway.

So we are led to an inevitable conclusion: that while Ed Miliband is feeling the hot breath of democracy upon the back of his neck, Nick Clegg is not. Miliband, already bitten by the force of Euroscepticism at a national level in 2015 and chastened by the result in America, is having to adapt to the chillier conditions. Clegg, on the other hand, is signed up to Tim Farron’s strategy of making the Lib Dems an EU-phile, Brexit-denying niche party. The good news to be drawn from this for Brexiteers is that Miliband’s experience is more typical for a Remain-inclined MP. Around 70 per cent of Labour MPs represent constituencies that voted Leave.

It is notable that Labour Remainers who are playing the Clegg tune of wanting to block Brexit altogether tend to be those representing Remain-voting London seats, like David Lammy in Tottenham, or Remain-voting university seats, like Daniel Zeichner in Cambridge. It is yet to be seen whether the majority of Labour MPs in Leave seats will be able to prevail upon such colleagues to show more restraint for fear of further contaminating the party’s overall brand with provincial working class voters. They will certainly try.

What our tale of two EU-philes tells us is that public opinion matters more than ever, that Remain Labour MPs sitting in working class Leave seats may well have taken further fright from the whole Donald Trump experience and that it is vital UKIP targets its political efforts now on seats where it came second in the general election to Labour MPs who went on to back Remain in the referendum.

Equally, where Tories came second to Labour Remain MPs in seats that went on to vote Leave, a strong Conservative push could help the Brexit process along very nicely.

People power ensured that Leave won on June 23rd.  If we Brexiteers keep our eye on the ball, people power can ensure that Brexit is delivered in full.