Cameron’s summer blues

The PM's political woes have deepened in the last two weeks.

Unlike some in his party, David Cameron never expected the Tories to receive an Olympic poll bounce. “People are too sensible to confuse a sporting event with their day-to-day lives,” he shrewdly observed before the Games began. But as he left for his holiday in the Mediterranean, the Prime Minister still had cause to reflect that his woes had increased over the preceding two weeks.

During the Olympics fortnight, he endured the loss of his proposed constituency boundary changes – a significant blow to the Tories’ chances of winning a majority in 2015 – saw Boris Johnson celebrated, and suffered the resignation of Louise Mensch, putting Labour within touching distance of its first by-election gain of this parliament. While Boris was cheered by crowds at Hyde Park, Cameron was booed when he watched the boxer Nicola Adams fight at the ExCeL Centre in east London.

Even before Nick Clegg’s veto of the boundary changes, a Tory majority was looking unlikely. No sitting prime minister has increased his party’s share of the vote since 1974 and Cameron is failing to make progress among those groups – black and ethnic minority voters, public-sector workers, Scottish voters – that refused to support him in 2010.

Economic revival remains the precondition for the Prime Minister’s political revival, yet it is increasingly uncertain. Britain is suffering from a crisis of demand, but the Tories’ self-imposed fiscal straitjacket has left them fixated with supply-side reform. There is talk again of making it easier for firms to hire and fire workers, of building new runways at Stansted Airport and of permanently relaxing the Sunday trading laws. Yet the presence of the Liberal Democrats makes it impossible for most or all of these proposals to become government policy.

Unable to deliver the supplyside revolution demanded by Conservative MPs and unwilling to pursue the Keynesian expansionism favoured by Labour, Cameron and George Osborne have nothing resembling a strategy for growth.

Soft leads

For now, the Tories console themselves that Cameron retains a personal 8-point lead over Ed Miliband as “the best prime minister”. In Labour circles, the party’s poll lead is regarded as “soft” and vulnerable to what the welfare minister Chris Grayling calls “EU veto moments”. As a Labour frontbencher told me: “The polls say we’re 10 points ahead but our real lead is 6 at best.”

The Tories are quietly hopeful that they will be the beneficiaries if the next election is fought over austerity. They will attempt to portray Miliband as the defender of a bloated welfare system and an overmighty public sector. The Chancellor’s promise of another £10bn of welfare cuts is a preview of this strategy. Labour is uncertain how to respond.

One Tory told me that private polling showed voters were more inclined to support Osborne’s austerity measures when informed that the coalition had reduced the deficit by a quarter since coming to power. “Let us finish the job” will be the Tories’ message at the next election.

The promise of another five years of austerity is far removed from Cameron’s original talk of “sunlit uplands”. But, for the PM, in danger of being remembered as one of the least electorally successful Conservative prime ministers in modern history, it is the only option left.

David Cameron has seen the chances of a Conservative majority in 2015 dramatically reduced by the loss of the boundary changes. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Back To Reality

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The Brexit Beartraps, #2: Could dropping out of the open skies agreement cancel your holiday?

Flying to Europe is about to get a lot more difficult.

So what is it this time, eh? Brexit is going to wipe out every banana planet on the entire planet? Brexit will get the Last Night of the Proms cancelled? Brexit will bring about World War Three?

To be honest, I think we’re pretty well covered already on that last score, but no, this week it’s nothing so terrifying. It’s just that Brexit might get your holiday cancelled.

What are you blithering about now?

Well, only if you want to holiday in Europe, I suppose. If you’re going to Blackpool you’ll be fine. Or Pakistan, according to some people...

You’re making this up.

I’m honestly not, though we can’t entirely rule out the possibility somebody is. Last month Michael O’Leary, the Ryanair boss who attracts headlines the way certain other things attract flies, warned that, “There is a real prospect... that there are going to be no flights between the UK and Europe for a period of weeks, months beyond March 2019... We will be cancelling people’s holidays for summer of 2019.”

He’s just trying to block Brexit, the bloody saboteur.

Well, yes, he’s been quite explicit about that, and says we should just ignore the referendum result. Honestly, he’s so Remainiac he makes me look like Dan Hannan.

But he’s not wrong that there are issues: please fasten your seatbelt, and brace yourself for some turbulence.

Not so long ago, aviation was a very national sort of a business: many of the big airports were owned by nation states, and the airline industry was dominated by the state-backed national flag carriers (British Airways, Air France and so on). Since governments set airline regulations too, that meant those airlines were given all sorts of competitive advantages in their own country, and pretty much everyone faced barriers to entry in others. 

The EU changed all that. Since 1994, the European Single Aviation Market (ESAM) has allowed free movement of people and cargo; established common rules over safety, security, the environment and so on; and ensured fair competition between European airlines. It also means that an AOC – an Air Operator Certificate, the bit of paper an airline needs to fly – from any European country would be enough to operate in all of them. 

Do we really need all these acronyms?

No, alas, we need more of them. There’s also ECAA, the European Common Aviation Area – that’s the area ESAM covers; basically, ESAM is the aviation bit of the single market, and ECAA the aviation bit of the European Economic Area, or EEA. Then there’s ESAA, the European Aviation Safety Agency, which regulates, well, you can probably guess what it regulates to be honest.

All this may sound a bit dry-

It is.

-it is a bit dry, yes. But it’s also the thing that made it much easier to travel around Europe. It made the European aviation industry much more competitive, which is where the whole cheap flights thing came from.

In a speech last December, Andrew Haines, the boss of Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority said that, since 2000, the number of destinations served from UK airports has doubled; since 1993, fares have dropped by a third. Which is brilliant.

Brexit, though, means we’re probably going to have to pull out of these arrangements.

Stop talking Britain down.

Don’t tell me, tell Brexit secretary David Davis. To monitor and enforce all these international agreements, you need an international court system. That’s the European Court of Justice, which ministers have repeatedly made clear that we’re leaving.

So: last March, when Davis was asked by a select committee whether the open skies system would persist, he replied: “One would presume that would not apply to us” – although he promised he’d fight for a successor, which is very reassuring. 

We can always holiday elsewhere. 

Perhaps you can – O’Leary also claimed (I’m still not making this up) that a senior Brexit minister had told him that lost European airline traffic could be made up for through a bilateral agreement with Pakistan. Which seems a bit optimistic to me, but what do I know.

Intercontinental flights are still likely to be more difficult, though. Since 2007, flights between Europe and the US have operated under a separate open skies agreement, and leaving the EU means we’re we’re about to fall out of that, too.  

Surely we’ll just revert to whatever rules there were before.

Apparently not. Airlines for America – a trade body for... well, you can probably guess that, too – has pointed out that, if we do, there are no historic rules to fall back on: there’s no aviation equivalent of the WTO.

The claim that flights are going to just stop is definitely a worst case scenario: in practice, we can probably negotiate a bunch of new agreements. But we’re already negotiating a lot of other things, and we’re on a deadline, so we’re tight for time.

In fact, we’re really tight for time. Airlines for America has also argued that – because so many tickets are sold a year or more in advance – airlines really need a new deal in place by March 2018, if they’re to have faith they can keep flying. So it’s asking for aviation to be prioritised in negotiations.

The only problem is, we can’t negotiate anything else until the EU decides we’ve made enough progress on the divorce bill and the rights of EU nationals. And the clock’s ticking.

This is just remoaning. Brexit will set us free.

A little bit, maybe. CAA’s Haines has also said he believes “talk of significant retrenchment is very much over-stated, and Brexit offers potential opportunities in other areas”. Falling out of Europe means falling out of European ownership rules, so itcould bring foreign capital into the UK aviation industry (assuming anyone still wants to invest, of course). It would also mean more flexibility on “slot rules”, by which airports have to hand out landing times, and which are I gather a source of some contention at the moment.

But Haines also pointed out that the UK has been one of the most influential contributors to European aviation regulations: leaving the European system will mean we lose that influence. And let’s not forget that it was European law that gave passengers the right to redress when things go wrong: if you’ve ever had a refund after long delays, you’ve got the EU to thank.

So: the planes may not stop flying. But the UK will have less influence over the future of aviation; passengers might have fewer consumer rights; and while it’s not clear that Brexit will mean vastly fewer flights, it’s hard to see how it will mean more, so between that and the slide in sterling, prices are likely to rise, too.

It’s not that Brexit is inevitably going to mean disaster. It’s just that it’ll take a lot of effort for very little obvious reward. Which is becoming something of a theme.

Still, we’ll be free of those bureaucrats at the ECJ, won’t be?

This’ll be a great comfort when we’re all holidaying in Grimsby.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.