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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Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.