This is why I’ve got a problem with Dave

Cameron’s priorities are revealing — and wrong.

I had lunch with an apolitical friend of mine, who voted Lib Dem at the last election, hates Labour, and wondered why I spend so much time criticising Cameron and the coalition, in print and online. He wanted me, in one or two sentences, to sum up why I've got such a problem with Dave.

Writing, rather appropriately in the Sun today, on the subject of welfare reform and benefit fraud, the Prime Minister makes the case against himself in a single, revealing, dog-whistling sentence:

That's why benefit fraud is the first and the deepest cut we will make.

Benefit fraud?? Which costs the country £1.5bn a year (or less than 1 per cent of the £155bn Budget deficit)? Not tax evasion or avoidance by the rich, which costs around £25bn? Not the £1.6bn lost to the taxpayer in errors and maladministration of the benefits system?

Not the £5bn rail subsidy, which helps fund the multimillion-pound bonuses of fat-cat rail bosses? Not the £2.5bn being wasted by the Ministry of Defence every year? Not the £4bn prisons budget, which, as the Justice Secretary admits, doesn't cut crime? Not the £4bn spent annually on a bloody, pointless and catastrophically self-defeating war in Afghanistan?

Nope, cutting benefit fraud. That's Cameron's main mission. I think it speaks volumes about his priorities and his preferences. So much for the veneer of "progressive conservatism".

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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The trouble with a second Brexit referendum

A new vote risks coming too soon for Remainers. But there is an alternative. 

In any given week, a senior political figure will call for a second Brexit referendum (the most recent being David Miliband). It's not hard to see why. EU withdrawal risks proving an act of political and economic self-harm and Leave's victory was narrow (52-48). Had Remain won by a similar margin, the Brexiteers would have immediately demanded a re-run. 

But the obstacles to another vote are significant. Though only 52 per cent backed Brexit, a far larger number (c. 65 per cent) believe the result should be respected. No major party currently supports a second referendum and time is short.

Even if Remainers succeed in securing a vote, it risks being lost. As Theresa May learned to her cost, electorates have a habit of punishing those who force them to polls. "It would simply be too risky," a senior Labour MP told me, citing one definition of insanity: doing the same thing and expecting a different result. Were a second referendum lost, any hope of blocking Brexit, or even softening it, would be ended. 

The vote, as some Remainers note, would also come at the wrong moment. By 2018/19, the UK will, at best, have finalised its divorce terms. A new trade agreement with the EU will take far longer to conclude. Thus, the Brexiteers would be free to paint a false picture of the UK's future relationship. "It would be another half-baked, ill-informed campaign," a Labour MP told me. 

For this reason, as I write in my column this week, an increasing number of Remainers are attracted to an alternative strategy. After a lengthy transition, they argue, voters should be offered a choice between a new EU trade deal and re-entry under Article 49 of the Lisbon Treaty. By the mid-2020s, Remainers calculate, the risks of Brexit will be clearer and the original referendum will be a distant memory. The proviso, they add, is that the EU would have to allow the UK re-entry on its existing membership terms (rather than ending its opt-outs from the euro and the border-free Schengen Area). 

Rather than publicly proposing this plan, MPs are wisely keeping their counsel. As they know, those who hope to overturn the Brexit result must first be seen to respect it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.