Lord Ashcroft warns the Tories: stop banging on about Europe

Conservative donor warns that the Tories will lose the next election if they obsess over Europe.

Lord Ashcroft might rank somewhere between Margaret Thatcher and Rupert Murdoch in leftist demonology but, like it or not, his political analysis is usually spot-on. His elegant and passionately sane blog on ConservativeHome this morning is a perfect example. Ashcroft warns the Tories that they must, to quote David Cameron, stop "banging on about Europe" or risk losing the next election.

He writes:

Monday's display was damaging because it suggested to ordinary voters that the Conservatives are far away from them when it comes to priorities - the most important issues facing the country, and their families. The point is not whether they agree with us over Europe: the sceptical Tory view, articulated over many years by William Hague and others, is close to the centre of gravity in public opinion. The question is whether it matters to them as much as other things matter, and the fact is that it does not.

Ashcroft is right. As I noted in my blog on Cameron yesterday, while voters share the Tories' euroscepticism they don't share their obsession with the subject. Polling by Ipsos-MORI shows that they regard the economy (68 per cent), unemployment (30 per cent), immigration (24 per cent), crime (24 per cent) and the NHS (21 per cent) as the most "important issues facing Britain". Just one per cent believe that the EU is the most important issue and only four per cent believe that it is one of the most important issues.

A

As the graph above shows, concern with Europe has remained consistently low since 2006. At various points in the last 20 years, such as the UK's withdrawal from the Exchange Rate Mechanism in 1992, the debate over the single currency during the 1997 election and the announcement of Gordon Brown's "five tests" for euro membership in 2003, public concern over Europe has reached significant levels. But barring another significant transfer of powers to Brussels, it seems unlikely to do so again.

Those on the right who argue that David Cameron doesn't talk enough about Europe are the mirror image of those on the left (most notably Tony Benn), who concluded, after Labour's landslide defeat in 1983, that the party lost because it wasn't radical enough. For them, Ashcroft has one message: enjoy the debate but you won't win an election.

He concludes:

Finally, some will say principle dictates that we should spend our time debating what we believe to be important, regardless of the voters (or "the polls", as they usually put it when making this point). In which case, I hope they enjoy themselves. But let's hear no more from them about that majority.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

Leader: Trump and an age of disorder

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions.

The US presidency has not always been held by men of distinction and honour, but Donald Trump is by some distance its least qualified occupant. The leader of the world’s sole superpower has no record of political or military service and is ignorant of foreign affairs. Throughout his campaign, he repeatedly showed himself to be a racist, a misogynist, a braggart and a narcissist.

The naive hope that Mr Trump’s victory would herald a great moderation was dispelled by his conduct during the transition. He compared his country’s intelligence services to those of Nazi Germany and repeatedly denied Russian interference in the election. He derided Nato as “obsolete” and predicted the demise of the European Union. He reaffirmed his commitment to dismantling Obamacare and to overturning Roe v Wade. He doled out jobs to white nationalists, protectionists and family members. He denounced US citizens for demonstrating against him. Asked whether he regretted any part of his vulgar campaign, he replied: “No, I won.”

Of all his predilections, Mr Trump’s affection for Vladimir Putin is perhaps the most troubling. When the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, warned that Russia was the “number one geopolitical foe” of the US, he was mocked by Barack Obama. Yet his remark proved prescient. Rather than regarding Mr Putin as a foe, however, Mr Trump fetes him as a friend. The Russian president aims to use the US president’s goodwill to secure the removal of American sanctions, recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and respect for the murderous reign of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. He has a worryingly high chance of success.

Whether or not Mr Trump has personal motives for his fealty (as a lurid security dossier alleges), he and Mr Putin share a political outlook. Both men desire a world in which “strongmen” are free to abuse their citizens’ human rights without fear of external rebuke. Mr Trump’s refusal to commit to Nato’s principle of collective defence provides Mr Putin with every incentive to pursue his expansionist desires. The historic achievement of peace and stability in eastern Europe is in danger.

As he seeks reconciliation with Russia, Mr Trump is simultaneously pursuing conflict with China. He broke with precedent by speaking on the telephone with the Taiwanese president, Tsai Ing-wen, and used Twitter to berate the Chinese government. Rex Tillerson, Mr Trump’s secretary of state nominee, has threatened an American blockade of the South China Sea islands.

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions. The US constitution, with its separation of powers, was designed to restrain autocrats such as the new president. Yet, in addition to the White House, the Republicans also control Congress and two-thirds of governorships and state houses. Mr Trump’s first Supreme Court appointment will ensure a conservative judicial majority. The decline of established print titles and the growth of “fake news” weaken another source of accountability.

In these circumstances, there is a heightened responsibility on the US’s allies to challenge, rather than to indulge, Mr Trump. Angela Merkel’s warning that co-operation was conditional on his respect for liberal and democratic values was a model of the former. Michael Gove’s obsequious interview with Mr Trump was a dismal example of the latter.

Theresa May has rightly rebuked the president for his treatment of women and has toughened Britain’s stance against Russian revanchism. Yet, although the UK must maintain working relations with the US, she should not allow the prospect of a future trade deal to skew her attitude towards Mr Trump. Any agreement is years away and the president’s protectionist proclivities could yet thwart British hopes of a beneficial outcome.

The diplomatic and political conventions embodied by the “special relationship” have endured for more than seven decades. However, Mr Trump’s election may necessitate their demise. It was the belief that the UK must stand “shoulder to shoulder” with the US that led Tony Blair into the ruinous Iraq War. In this new age of disorder, Western leaders must avoid being willing accomplices to Mr Trump’s agenda. Intense scepticism, rather than sycophancy, should define their response.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era