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.

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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide