The Tories' EU games are undermining their "grown-up" economic message

The threat by Nissan to withdraw from Britain if the UK leaves the EU shows how the Tories' euroscepticism pulls against their emphasis on stability.

As Labour gains ground with its cost-of-living offensive, the Tories have sought to present themselves as the "grown-up" party that can be trusted to maintain economic stability and avoid short-term "gimmicks" that threaten this aim. But this strategy risks being undermined by their decision to raise the spectre of EU withdrawal. On the day that MPs debate Conservative MP James Wharton's bill guaranteeing a referendum in 2017 (and Adam Afriyie's amendment for a vote in October), the head of Nissan has warned that his company could withdraw from Britain if the UK leaves the EU. Carlos Ghosn said: "If anything has to change we [would] need to reconsider our strategy and our investments for the future." Were Nissan to leave, 6,500 jobs at the company's Sunderland site would be lost.

For the Tories, who have made much of the renaissance of car manufacturing in Britain (with output forecast to reach a record high by 2015), it's an awkward message. Of the 30 brands manufacturing 70 models in the UK, Nissan is the largest and recently announced that its Sunderland plant would move to 24-hour production in 2014 to meet demand. With the uncertainty now set to endure until at least 2015, Ghosn's warning is likely to be the first of many that tarnish the Tories' economic brand.

And for what gain? Those who confidently predicted back in January that Cameron's EU referendum pledge would shoot Farage's fox, or even set the Conservatives on the road to victory, have been proved entirely wrong. The motivations of those who support UKIP are too complex and long-term for them to be bought off by the promise of a vote in 2017.

While the public share the Tories' euroscepticism, they do not share their obsession with the subject. As polling by Ipsos MORI has consistently shown, voters do not regard it as one of the ten most important issues. It's true that they overwhelmingly support an EU referendum but as pollsters regularly attest, this merely reflects their general predilection for such votes.

Cameron knows and understands all of the above. One of the principal aims of his speech was to settle the debate, calm his restive backbenchers and move on. But with the focus now likely to shift to exactly which powers he will seek to repatriate, there is little prospect of any relief.

David Cameron gestures during a press conference at the end of the second and last day of an European Union (EU) Council meeting on October 25, 2013 at the EU Headquarters in Brussels. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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PMQs review: Theresa May shows how her confidence has grown

After her Brexit speech, the PM declared of Jeremy Corbyn: "I've got a plan - he doesn't have a clue". 

The woman derided as “Theresa Maybe” believes she has neutralised that charge. Following her Brexit speech, Theresa May cut a far more confident figure at today's PMQs. Jeremy Corbyn inevitably devoted all six of his questions to Europe but failed to land a definitive blow.

He began by denouncing May for “sidelining parliament” at the very moment the UK was supposedly reclaiming sovereignty (though he yesterday praised her for guaranteeing MPs would get a vote). “It’s not so much the Iron Lady as the irony lady,” he quipped. But May, who has sometimes faltered against Corbyn, had a ready retort. The Labour leader, she noted, had denounced the government for planning to leave the single market while simultaneously seeking “access” to it. Yet “access”, she went on, was precisely what Corbyn had demanded (seemingly having confused it with full membership). "I've got a plan - he doesn't have a clue,” she declared.

When Corbyn recalled May’s economic warnings during the referendum (“Does she now disagree with herself?”), the PM was able to reply: “I said if we voted to leave the EU the sky would not fall in and look at what has happened to our economic situation since we voted to leave the EU”.

Corbyn’s subsequent question on whether May would pay for single market access was less wounding than it might have been because she has consistently refused to rule out budget contributions (though yesterday emphasised that the days of “vast” payments were over).

When the Labour leader ended by rightly hailing the contribution immigrants made to public services (“The real pressure on public services comes from a government that slashed billions”), May took full opportunity of the chance to have the last word, launching a full-frontal attack on his leadership and a defence of hers. “There is indeed a difference - when I look at the issue of Brexit or any other issues like the NHS or social care, I consider the issue, I set out my plan and I stick to it. It's called leadership, he should try it some time.”

For May, life will soon get harder. Once Article 50 is triggered, it is the EU 27, not the UK, that will take back control (the withdrawal agreement must be approved by at least 72 per cent of member states). With MPs now guaranteed a vote on the final outcome, parliament will also reassert itself. But for now, May can reflect with satisfaction on her strengthened position.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.