Cameron's prescriptions for Europe miss the point (again)

The Prime Minister wants to talk about growth, but recognising the impact of German plans for collec

David Cameron wants Britain to play an integral role in reforming the European Union. He really does. His speech in Davos today explained how he is committed to reviving the continent's flagging economies with an agenda for boosting growth - deregulation; liberalisation, competitive taxation.

This is a familiar tune. Britain's position under Labour wasn't so very different - accepting a degree of political integration as the necessary price for creating an open, free trading space of continental scale and hoping, over time, to make that space look more like the UK economy and less like the French one.

The problem now, as I wrote in my column this week, is that the kind of diplomacy that is required actually to drive that agenda in the European Council - involving compromise, long-term nurturing of relationships with EU leaders; demonstrations of commitment to the European project - is also the kind of behaviour that the Conservative party generally finds unacceptable in a leader. In other words, Cameron can say this stuff, but he is no closer to getting it done if he can't build the strategic majorities among fellow EU member states to make it happen.

But there is another problem. Cameron's analysis of the EU's growth problems necessarily has to exclude discussion of the effect on demand of choreographed mass austerity - to concede that point would be to admit that the same force is in play in Britain. But clearly this is an issue. In his speech, the Prime Minister praised efforts by eurozone countries to bring their public finances under control - the drive for a fiscal compact led by German Chancellor Angela Merkel - but warned that it was not enough. He encourages the single currency bloc to consider issuing euro-bonds and effecting transfers between states - a true fiscal union, in other words. He essentially told Merkel to dip into her budget to save the euro.

If Cameron understands the inadequacy of Merkel's plans at the level of budget imbalances inside the eurozone, why does he not understand the related problem of German-enforced austerity for the continent draining aggregate demand? Why does he insist on offering only long-term supply-side solutions to the problem of European growth? The answer, I suspect, is that the government does understand the issue but it is taboo because of the coalition's political commitment to make austerity a morally inviolate part of domestic economic policy.

There was a meeting last week of the Franco-British Colloque - a top-level club of politicians, academics, business leaders etc to discuss cross-channel issues. It meets annually and this time the gathering was held in the UK. George Osborne was there and, someone who was present tells me, in the discussions of the EU's growth problem, the Chancellor effectively acknowledged the macroeconomic case against collective European austerity. He simply couldn't accept that it was relevant to the policies he is deploying in Britain. Treasury economists will surely be telling him the same thing: Merkel's fetish for fiscal conservatism is going to drag Europe down.

If Cameron wants to take a lead in promoting growth in Europe he could start by making that point. He can't of course, at least not without repudiating the central tenet of his government's economic policy.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.