Cameron's EU strategy puts party interests before the national interest

A pledge to hold an in/out referendum will appease Tory MPs, but it will not deliver for Britain.

This week the curtain rises on the new Westminster year - and already speculation about the Prime Minister’s much delayed speech on Europe has begun. But the fact 2013 is earmarked to begin with such a speech reveals more about the Prime Minister’s weakness at home than his agenda abroad.

Both the timing and content of this speech have little to do with policy and everything to do with politics. The truth is that David Cameron didn’t give the speech in 2012 because he didn't know what to say. To deliver for the country the speech would need to be about how Britain plans to lead the reshaping of post-crisis Europe. Yet for the speech to deliver for his own party, only one line will really matter... and that is whether or not David Cameron commits to an in/out referendum.

It is this tension that has left the Tory leader stranded speechless for the past year between the party interest and the national interest. If, for reasons of his party's divisions and weakness in the polls, he succumbs to calls in the coming days for an in/out referendum, he will have to answer questions not just about his political judgement, but also about his political priorities. Of course the Prime Minister may hope that such an in/out referendum announcement can help convince UKIP voters to return to the Conservative party. But instead he should be asking himself: is Europe really as much of a priority in the public's mind for this new year as it is for him or his party?

And even if he thinks it is: is an in/out referendum really the biggest issue we have to face in Europe today? My answer to both would be no. Why?

First, British business leaders are already nervous, but this could turn to real fear if an under pressure Prime Minister now announces an in/out referendum and the perception takes hold that many Conservative MPs - including some cabinet ministers - are simply awaiting exit. If the government disagrees with this they should publish, along with David Cameron's speech, all the advice to ministers from BIS and the Treasury about the impact of such an announcement on UK business and inward investment prospects.

Announcing an in/out referendum halfway through this parliament to take place more than halfway through the next, given the Conservatives' hostility towards Europe, could risk up to seven years of economic uncertainty, threatening vital investment and effectively playing Roulette with the country's economic future. Indeed, even his own Foreign Secretary William Hague has told the House of Commons that "It would create additional economic uncertainty in this country at a difficult economic time.” The Prime Minster himself has made much in recent days of his ambition to secure an EU-US trade deal during the UK's G8 Presidency. It's a laudable economic goal, but he seems less keen to recognise that to achieve it relies entirely on British membership of Europe. A Britain outside Europe would be unable to even aspire to such a deal.

Second, focusing on an in/out referendum now actually risks the UK missing the best chance in a generation to reform Europe so that it better serves our interests and meets our expectations. Simply presenting a shopping list of repatriations - backed by the threat of exit – will not deliver for Britain and will undermine our ability to shape and lead the broader project of EU reform.

If he disagrees, the Prime Minister should publish alongside his speech the advice to FCO ministers about what impact this approach would have on our influence in Europe at this crucial time. Labour takes a different view. We are clear that any future decision on a referendum should be based on changes in Europe, not movements in the polls.

While the Prime Minister is right to recognise that Europe, and our position within it, is changing, he is wrong to imply that these changes inevitably threaten our interests. It is still unclear how these changes will affect Britain’s relationship with the EU, or indeed the nature of our membership.

That is why the priority must be for Britain to use the coming months and years to shape and lead this process of change by pursuing an agenda of wide ranging reforms and not simply narrow repatriation. Britain’s real interests lie in the EU as a whole being reformed to make it fit for purpose and better placed to compete in the new global race. But our chance of succeeding in this task is increased if it is positioned as right for all European countries, not just the UK. Subsidiarity within the EU is not a new idea, but an old one worth focusing on anew. At its inception the EU was designed to accommodate varying levels of integration and Britain has always benefited from this. If however, Britain were to open the door to an a la carte EU, it could be us that suffer as other member states demand reforms that undermine the single market.

Institutional flexibility and not unilateral national repatriations is what will best protect British interests within a reformed EU. In the past the case for the EU was based on delivering peace and prosperity. Today these are the foundations on which we must build a reformed Europe that effectively amplifies the power of each of its members.

Labour is clear that Britain's future lies within the European Union. But we also recognise that Europe today needs a reform agenda that prioritises growth, strengthens the single market, pools resources in defence effectively, promotes free trade deals regionally and globally, and develops systems to tackle climate change, cross border terror and crime.

Few would deny that David Cameron’s speech comes at a crucial time, but sadly it seems to be being made for all the wrong reasons. It simply won't have been worth the wait if Cameron's internal weakness results in a speech for his backbenchers instead of one for his country.

David Cameron speaks during a press conference at the EU headquarters on December 14, 2012 in Brussels. Photograph: Getty Images.

Douglas Alexander is the shadow foreign secretary and Labour MP for Paisley and Renfrewshire South.

Photo: Getty
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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.