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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Who "speaks for England" - and for that matter, what is "England"?

The Hollywood producer Sam Gold­wyn once demanded, “Let’s have some new clichés.” The Daily Mail, however, is always happiest with the old ones.

The Hollywood producer Sam Gold­wyn once demanded, “Let’s have some new clichés.” The Daily Mail, however, is always happiest with the old ones. It trotted out Leo Amery’s House of Commons call from September 1939, “Speak for England”, for the headline on a deranged leader that filled a picture-free front page on David Cameron’s “deal” to keep Britain in the EU.

Demands that somebody or other speak for England have followed thick and fast ever since Amery addressed his call to Labour’s Arthur Greenwood when Neville Chamberlain was still dithering over war with Hitler. Tory MPs shouted, “Speak for England!” when Michael Foot, the then Labour leader, rose in the Commons in 1982 after Argentina’s invasion of the Falklands. The Mail columnist Andrew Alexander called on Clare Short to “speak for England” over the Iraq War in 2003. “Can [Ed] Miliband speak for England?” Anthony Barnett asked in this very magazine in 2013. (Judging by the 2015 election result, one would say not.) “I speak for England,” claimed John Redwood last year. “Labour must speak for England,” countered Frank Field soon afterwards.

The Mail’s invocation of Amery was misconceived for two reasons. First, Amery wanted us to wage war in Europe in support of Hitler’s victims in Poland and elsewhere and in alliance with France, not to isolate ourselves from the continent. Second, “speak for England” in recent years has been used in support of “English votes for English laws”, following proposals for further devolution to Scotland. As the Mail was among the most adamant in demanding that Scots keep their noses out of English affairs, it’s a bit rich of it now to state “of course, by ‘England’. . . we mean the whole of the United Kingdom”.

 

EU immemorial

The Mail is also wrong in arguing that “we are at a crossroads in our island history”. The suggestion that the choice is between “submitting to a statist, unelected bureaucracy in Brussels” and reclaiming our ancient island liberties is pure nonsense. In the long run, withdrawing from the EU will make little difference. Levels of immigration will be determined, as they always have been, mainly by employers’ demands for labour and the difficulties of policing the borders of a country that has become a leading international transport hub. The terms on which we continue to trade with EU members will be determined largely by unelected bureaucrats in Brussels after discussions with unelected bureaucrats in London.

The British are bored by the EU and the interminable Westminster arguments. If voters support Brexit, it will probably be because they then expect to hear no more on the subject. They will be sadly mistaken. The withdrawal negotiations will take years, with the Farages and Duncan Smiths still foaming at the mouth, Cameron still claiming phoney victories and Angela Merkel, François Hollande and the dreaded Jean-Claude Juncker playing a bigger part in our lives than ever.

 

An empty cabinet

Meanwhile, one wonders what has become of Jeremy Corbyn or, indeed, the rest of the shadow cabinet. The Mail’s “speak for England” leader excoriated him for not mentioning “the Number One subject of the hour” at PM’s Questions but instead asking about a shortage of therapeutic radiographers in the NHS. In fact, the NHS’s problems – almost wholly caused by Tory “reforms” and spending cuts – would concern more people than does our future in the EU. But radiographers are hardly headline news, and Corbyn and his team seem unable to get anything into the nation’s “any other business”, never mind to the top of its agenda.

Public services deteriorate by the day, George Osborne’s fiscal plans look increasingly awry, and attempts to wring tax receipts out of big corporations appear hopelessly inadequate. Yet since Christmas I have hardly seen a shadow minister featured in the papers or spotted one on TV, except to say something about Trident, another subject that most voters don’t care about.

 

Incurable prose

According to the Guardian’s admirable but (let’s be honest) rather tedious series celeb­rating the NHS, a US health-care firm has advised investors that “privatisation of the UK marketplace . . . should create organic and de novo opportunities”. I have no idea what this means, though it sounds ominous. But I am quite certain I don’t want my local hospital or GP practice run by people who write prose like that.

 

Fashionable Foxes

My home-town football team, Leicester City, are normally so unfashionable that they’re not even fashionable in Leicester, where the smart set mostly watch the rugby union team Leicester Tigers. Even when they installed themselves near the top of the Premier League before Christmas, newspapers scarcely noticed them.

Now, with the Foxes five points clear at the top and 7-4 favourites for their first title, that mistake is corrected and the sports pages are running out of superlatives, a comparison with Barcelona being the most improbable. Even I, not a football enthusiast, have watched a few matches. If more football were played as Leicester play it – moving at speed towards their opponents’ goal rather than aimlessly weaving pretty patterns in midfield – I would watch the game more.

Nevertheless, I recall 1963, when Leicester headed the old First Division with five games to play. They picked up only one more point and finished fourth, nine points adrift of the league winners, Everton.

 

Gum unstuck

No, I don’t chew toothpaste to stop me smoking, as the last week’s column strangely suggested. I chew Nicorette gum, a reference written at some stage but somehow lost (probably by me) before it reached print.

Editor: The chief sub apologises for this mistake, which was hers

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle