David Cameron: The Good European

The PM sees the EU as part of the solution, not the problem for the UK economy - a brave position to take as leader of today's Tory party.

Well that’s me told. Back in January, a couple of weeks before David Cameron delivered the speech in which he first promised an in/out referendum on Britain’s European Union membership, I wondered whether the Prime Minister’s “Global Race” story was pro-EU or anti.

It could go either way (which is, I suppose, the purpose of a plastic slogan). The demands of creating slim-line, super competitive, non-bureaucratic, low tax economy might militate against the onerous obligation to run every decision through Brussels. Or, the prospect of a future in which the rules of trade will be dictated by continental Titans – the US, India, China – might make it imperative that the UK amplify its power in the only forum that can match those beasts for market heft, which is the EU. Which way would Cameron jump?

Now we have the answer, and it isn’t going to go down well on the right of the Conservative party. In a speech today on the topic of Britain’s role in the world, Cameron makes it clear that he sees EU membership as a race-winning supplement not an obstacle:

Another key part of that effort is our place at the top table. At the UN. The Commonwealth. NATO. The WTO. The G8. The G20. And yes – the EU. Membership of these organisations is not national vanity – it is in our national interest. The fact is that it is in international institutions that many of the rules of the game are set on trade, tax and regulation. When a country like ours is affected profoundly by those rules, I want us to have a say on them. 

This should be an uncontroversial statement. There is no credible model of Britain’s relations with the rest of Europe that doesn’t require deep integration with the single market – the agreed space for internally consistent trading rules, allowing free cross-border movement of goods and labour. The obvious way to make that arrangement work to the UK’s advantage is to be one of the countries at the negotiating table when new regulations are discussed. Leaving the EU would mean ditching the right to change the rules while, in most cases, still being bound by them. If you want to be all purist about the sovereignty issue, that sounds like being “out” involves a greater surrender of national autonomy than staying “in”.

Cameron will have been prompted to make this intervention by alarmed noises emanating from British exporters. Although business leaders are generally reluctant to get involved in political controversies, the message being passed to Downing Street is that wild speculation about the UK walking away from the EU table is most unwelcome. London’s diplomatic influence in Brussels is already waning with alarming speed.

Of course, the hardline sceptics see this as typical lily-livered Europhilia. The rest of Europe needs the UK’s market and wants to export to us as much as we want to export to them. A mutually beneficial deal, say the sceps, can be done that keeps the benefits of free trade and junks all the pseudo-state apparatus of legal and political integration. Besides, if the future of trade is with China, India and Brazil, why shouldn’t the UK strike out alone, in true buccaneering fashion, no longer “shackled to the corpse” – as some Tory MPs describe it – of a sclerotic, statist, debt-laden, enfeebled Eurozone. (What this argument likes to ignore is the way that Germany manages quite happily to sell six times as many goods to China as the UK while remaining entirely enmeshed in institutional apparatus of the EU. For more on that, and other rebuttals of the anti-EU case, I recommend this article by Katinka Barysch of the Centre for European Reform.)

The reality, of course, is that the anti-EU position begins with visceral, nationalist hatred of the whole project and then retro-fits libertarian ideas to make quitting sound economically feasible. It is to Cameron’s credit that he doesn’t play that game and that, ultimately, he recognises the long-term strategic advantages of active engagement in Brussels. Where it gets a bit awkward is if he follows that logic to ponder which powers he seriously wants to “repatriate” as part of his planned renegotiation of Britain’s EU membership.

If, as his speech today implies, he wants Britain’s role in Europe to be advancing an agenda to boost competitive reform within the single market – playing “global race” personal trainer to the rest of the continent – he won’t want to spend too much diplomatic capital demanding special UK exemptions from EU law to satisfy his insatiable back benchers. He knows that a British Prime Minister has better things to ask for in Brussels than concessions that Ukippers and Tory militants will in any case jeer as inadequate. By acknowledging today that participation in the EU project is part of the solution not the problem of British competitiveness, Cameron has finally outed himself as a “good European.” Very brave, Prime Minister.

David Cameron attends a press conference at the EU headquarters on May 22, 2013 in Brussels. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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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