Lord Ashcroft is right to warn the Tories not to bang on about Europe

Just six per cent of voters regard the EU as one of the most "important issues" facing Britain.

In his first conference speech as Conservative leader, David Cameron memorably told his party to stop "banging on" about Europe. Lord Ashcroft, the former Conservative deputy chairman, billionaire party donor and prolific pollster, has just warned him to remember this injunction if he wants to win the next election (on which his hopes of a renegotiation, followed by a referendum, rest). 

In an article for ConservativeHome, the site he co-owns, Ashcroft writes: 

The principal benefit of our referendum policy is not that it gives our campaign a headline; it is that it allows us to put the issue to rest and move the conversation on to what the voters want to discuss. Europe is important and we have a clear view about it. That does not mean we should allow it to top our agenda, or look as though it does. Few things would please Ed Miliband more.

Tories must remember that we can only get what we want once we win an election. The more we talk about changing our relationship with Europe, the less likely it is to happen.

As so often, Ashcroft's analysis is spot-on. While voters share the Tories' euroscepticism, they do not share their obsession with the subject. Polling by Ipsos MORI (see above) regularly shows that fewer than 10 per cent of voters regard the EU as one of the most "important issues facing Britain". Its most recent survey found that, even after the media attention devoted to the subject in recent months, just two per cent of voters regard the EU as "the most important issue" facing the UK today and just four per cent regard it as another "important issue". 

Cameron knows and understands all of the above. One of the aims of his speech was to settle the debate, calm his restive backbenchers and move on. Whether his MPs allow him to do so remains to be seen. 

Former Conservative deputy chairman Lord Ashcroft warned the Tories that the more they talked about Europe the less likely they were to win the election. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

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

0800 7318496