Europe is still a Tory obsession. Labour should leave them to it

The next election will be decided by the economy, not by which party is the most eurosceptic.

David Cameron had a good day on Wednesday. After giving a convincing and impressive sounding speech that made him sound pragmatic and engaged with reforming the EU but also dangled the promise of an 'in/out' referendum within the next five years, he offered more than enough to pacify both the pro and anti-European wings of his party. In just over 25 minutes, he apparently managed what no Conservative leader could do in 25 years.                                                                                                                                                                                           
 
The Prime Minister will continue to get a good press and Labour, whose poll lead over the Tories had already narrowed to 5 points according to the latest ICM survey, will take some flak for not matching Cameron's promise of a referendum. Labour's handful of eurosceptics, and opportunist pundits who never think more than a few weeks ahead, will accuse Ed Miliband of dropping the ball.
 
But Miliband is wise to be cautious. The next election is a political lifetime away - 2017 is further still. If the wind changes decisively in the two and a half years between now and the 2015 election, there is plenty of time to perform a U-turn and back a public vote. As Cameron found to his cost after he promised and then reneged on a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, there is no value in putting yourself at the mercy of uncontrollable events. 
 
In any case, jumping on the referendum bandwagon now would smack of the cynicism that it is. Labour cannot really expect people to buy into the pretence that it is more eurosceptic than the Tories.
 
The eruption of Tory support for their leader will be disconcerting for the Labour and Lib Dem benches, but we've been here before. The last time Cameron got such rapturous support from his party was his non-veto of the fiscal compact in December 2011. Conservative MPs lined up to praise their leader for standing up to Merkel and Sarkozy before realising that Cameron hadn't actually prevented anything.
 
Besides, it's easy to forget that, only a few days ago, Conservatives were at daggers drawn with each other over what Cameron should and shouldn't say. The speech has applied plenty of sticking-plaster but ensured that the next four years will be dominated by the European obsession that has afflicted the Tory party for the last twenty years. The Conservative Party's own European unity will cease as soon as the negotiations start. There's no need for Labour to start intruding into their private grief.
 
The other point is to look at who some of the most vocal Tory supporters of the speech are: Bill Cash, Douglas Carswell and Bernard Jenkin, all of whom will only vote for Britain to leave the EU. Around 100 Tory MPs would campaign for a 'no' vote regardless of what Cameron can secure from the rest of Europe. 
 
Cameron is more likely to have created a trap for himself, rather than for Labour. The notion that politicians in Berlin, Paris, Rome and elsewhere are going to offer a package of opt-outs and exemptions to satisfy the most eurosceptic wing of the Tory party lacks credibility. At best, Cameron will probably, like Harold Wilson in 1975, come home with little more than a piece of paper. Perhaps further powers for national parliaments in scrutinising EU legislation, an exemption from the Working Time Directive (which many countries don't enforce anyway), a protocol about border control, tighter democratic controls over the European Commission - which would probably be supported by all parties. Achieving even this short list would be quite a feat but Tory backbenchers would still accuse him of a sell-out.
 
In truth, there is a good chance that Cameron will not even get the chance to renegotiate. Changing the treaties would require the unanimous consent of all 26 other countries and an intergovernmental conference. Nobody wants to re-open the treaties unless they have to and, with the eurozone now looking stronger, the prospect of rewriting the treaties to protect the single currency is growing more remote. Indeed, although it had been widely assumed that deeper integration of the eurozone would lead to treaty reform, Merkel has signalled that she will not push for any changes to the EU treaties in the near future. The banking union legislation falls under the existing legal framework, while plans to create a mutualised debt market and single finance minister for the eurozone, which would require treaty change, are now on the backburner.
 
Conservative party supporters up and down the country will have the bunting out over the weekend, but most voters will soon forget about Cameron's referendum promise. The next election will be decided by the economy, not by which party is the most eurosceptic. And while the Tories may think that they can force Ed Miliband onto the back foot, nobody should forget the fact that the Prime Minister made this speech not because he wanted to, but because he felt he had to.
 
Ben Fox is a reporter for EU Observer. He writes in a personal capacity
David Cameron speaks on January 24, 2013 during a session of the annual World Economic Forum (WEF) meeting in the Swiss resort of Davos. Photograph: Getty Images.
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France is changing: an army stalks the streets and Boris Johnson wanders the Tuileries

Will Self on the militarisation of France, and Boris Johnson at the Foreign Office.

At the corner of the rue D’Hauteville and the rue de Paradis in the tenth arrondissement of Paris is a retro-video-games-themed bar, Le Fantôme, which is frequented by some not-so-jeunes gens – the kind of thirtysomethings nostalgic for an era when you had to go to an actual place if you wanted to enter virtual space. They sit placidly behind the plate-glass windows zapping Pac-Men and Space Invaders, while outside another – and rather more lethal – sort of phantom stalks the sunlit streets.

I often go to Paris for work, and so have been able to register the incremental militarisation of its streets since President Hollande first declared a state of emergency after last November’s terrorist attacks. In general the French seem more comfortable about this prêt-à-porter khaki than we’d probably be; the army-nation concept is, after all, encrypted deep in their collective psyche. The army was constituted as a revolutionary instrument. France was the first modern nation to introduce universal male conscription – and it continued in one form or another right up until the mid-1990s.

Even so, it was surprising to witness the sang-froid with which Parisians regarded the camouflaged phantoms wandering among them: a patrol numbering eight ­infantrymen and women moved up the roadway, scoping out doorways, nosing into passages – but when one peered into Le Fantôme, his assault rifle levelled, none of the boozing gamers paid the least attention. I witnessed this scene the Saturday after Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel ran amok on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice – it was a little preview of the new state of emergency.

On Monday 18 July the French premier, Manuel Valls, was booed at a memorial service for the victims of the Nice attacks – while Marine Le Pen has been making all the populist running, whipping up anxieties about the enemy within. For many French, the events of the past week – including the failed Turkish coup – are steps along the way limned by Michel Houellebecq in his bestselling novel Submission; a via dolorosa that ends with La Marianne wearing the hijab and France itself annexed by a new caliphate.

Into this febrile drama comes a new player: Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary. What can we expect from this freshly minted statesman when it comes to our relations with our closest neighbour? There is no doubt that Johnson is a Francophile – I’ve run into him and his family at the Tuileries, and he made much of his own francophone status during the referendum campaign. In Paris last winter to launch the French edition of his Churchill biography, Johnson wowed a publication dinner by speaking French for the entire evening. He was sufficiently fluent to bumble, waffle and generally avoid saying anything serious at all.

Last Sunday I attended the Lambeth Country Show, an oxymoronic event for which the diverse inhabitants of my home borough gather in Brockwell Park, south London, for jerked and halal chicken, funfair rides, Quidditch-watching, and “country-style” activities, such as looking at farm animals and buying their products. Wandering among ancient Rastafarians with huge shocks of dreadlocks, British Muslims wearing immaculate white kurtas blazoned with “ASK ME ABOUT ISLAM” and crusty old Brixton punks, I found it quite impossible to rid my mind of the Nice carnage – or stop wondering how they would react if armed soldiers were patrolling, instead of tit-helmeted, emphatically unarmed police.

I stepped into the Royal Horticultural Society marquee, and there they were: the entire cast of our end-of-the-pier-show politics, in vegetable-sculpture form and arrayed for judging. There was Jeremy Corbyn (or “Cornbin”) made out of corncobs – and Boris Johnson in the form of a beetroot, being stabbed in the back by a beetroot Michael Gove. And over there was Johnson again, this time rendered in cabbage. The veggie politicians were the big draw, Brixtonians standing six-deep around them, iPhones aloft.

The animal (as opposed to the vegetable) Johnson has begun his diplomatic rounds this week, his first démarches as tasteless and anodyne as cucumber. No British abandonment of friends after Brexit . . . Coordinated response to terror threat . . . Call for Erdogan to be restrained in response to failed coup . . . Blah-blah, whiff-whaff-waffle . . . Even someone as gaffe-prone as he can manage these simple lines, but I very much doubt he will be able to produce rhetorical flourishes as powerful as his hero’s. In The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, Johnson writes of Winnie overcoming “his stammer and his depression and his ­appalling father to become the greatest living Englishman”. Well, I’ve no idea if Bojo suffers from depression now but he soon will if he cleaves to this role model. His Churchill-worship (like so many others’) hinges on his belief that, without Churchill as war leader, Britain would have been ground beneath the Nazi jackboot. It may well be that, with his contribution to the Brexit campaign, Johnson now feels he, too, has wrested our national destiny from the slavering jaws of contingency.

Of course the differences between the two politicians are far more significant: Johnson’s genius – such as it is – lies in his intuitive understanding that politics, in our intensely mediatised and entirely commoditised era, is best conceived of as a series of spectacles or stunts: nowadays you can fool most of the people, most of the time. This is not a view you can imagine associating with Churchill, who, when his Gallipoli stratagem went disastrously wrong, exiled himself, rifle in hand, to the trenches. No, the French people Johnson both resembles and has an affinity for are the ones caught up in the virtual reality of Le Fantôme – rather than those patrolling the real and increasingly mean streets without. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt