Cameron's indulgence of Tory fantasies is weakening his hand in Europe

The PM's Ukip-style positioning on immigration is viewed as weakness or blackmail by the rest of the EU.

The best part of a year has passed since David Cameron’s speech promising to renegotiate the terms of Britain’s European Union membership and to put the ensuing deal to the country in a referendum. Since then, there hasn’t been much clarity about the kind of reforms that would persuade the Prime Minister to campaign for the "in" side.

We have learned something about what he doesn’t like. Or rather, we know that he has located the feature of current EU membership that seems most to inflame public hostility – free movement of workers between member states – and wants to be seen to be doing something about it.

On 1 January 2014, transitional controls that have limited the rights of Romanians and Bulgarians to live and work in the UK will be lifted. Nigel Farage is terribly excited by this prospect since it effectively launches Ukip’s campaign for May’s European parliamentary elections without him having to lift a finger. The Tories are putting in all the groundwork, ramping up the issue, reinforcing the impression that a horde of welfare-snaffling foreigners is massing on the border. Voters who are most animated by fear of a migrant tsunami will not believe the Conservatives can hold back the tide.

And they can’t. Cameron understands that free movement is an integral part of the single market. He has given private assurances to the European Commission that Britain will do nothing unilaterally that would breach existing rules. What he hopes to do is persuade other member states that those rules can, in time, be amended. In all likelihood that would mean adjustments to the accession arrangements for any future candidates for EU membership. Retrospectively clawing back rights from existing members or rewriting the very basis on which workers move around the bloc would require treaty revision on a scale that no other country wants to consider.

In other words, when Cameron says he is getting tough over the arrival of Bulgarians and Romanians in two weeks time, what he actually means is that he intends to start a conversation about a possible negotiation about what might theoretically happen with some Croatians at an unspecified point in the future.

Making announcements that sound like Ukip propaganda but without the policy of EU exit to support them is ultimately just an incitement to vote Ukip. Meanwhile, briefings from the Home Office that something drastic will be done serve only to nurture in Tory eurosceptic hardliners the hope that, if they push hard enough, Conservative policy will merge with Farage’s. (The government’s Immigration Bill has already been blown off course by a Tory backbench amendment calling for Britain to renege on its treaty obligations to Romania and Bulgaria.)

This situation is a source of bafflement and rising alarm in other European capitals. Most EU leaders and Brussels officials are prepared to engage with Cameron’s renegotiation ambitions to some extent because, by and large, they want Britain to stay in and they recognise that institutional reform is needed. It helps that the Prime Minister now talks more about pan-European changes than about unilateral "repatriation" of powers. When Cameron goes to Brussels, the carving out of custom-made exceptions for the UK – enjoying all the trading perks of open borders without any of the accompanying social and employment protections – is not seriously on the agenda. Yet that is the only kind of deal that many Tory sceptics would consider acceptable.

When Cameron allows his party to dwell on fantasies of a bespoke British EU package, the rest of Europe starts to lose patience. It is seen as either weakness – a failure to confront the Tory party with a realistic account of what is available in "renegotiation" – or it is viewed as a cynical game, ramping up euroscepticism, making the threat of exit seem ever more likely in the (mistaken) belief that this strengthens Britain’s hand. "We don’t like to use the word blackmail, but sometimes it is the word that comes naturally to your lips," one Commission official tells me.

Perhaps the most surprising element in all this is the Tory party’s willingness to indulge the pretence that Cameron has even embarked on a process of giving them what they want. There is really no evidence that he has. There will be a referendum in 2017, if the Tories form a government after the next election – and that is far from certain. Meanwhile, it remains the Prime Minister’s stated policy to support continued EU membership in that vote. When does he suppose he will fit in the negotiations to secure a deal that doesn’t tear his party in half? He shows no intention of starting soon. Is such a deal even possible? The rest of Europe – led by Germany – is eager to find some accommodation, but they can’t help if they don’t really know what it is that Cameron wants. (And there are divergent views between the parties in Germany’s ruling coalition and within them of how far Berlin should go to accommodate Britain.)

Cameron’s European strategy as it currently stands is to ramp up domestic expectations of a deal that fundamentally changes the basic principles on which the EU operates, while doing none of the diplomacy abroad to make such an outcome even remotely plausible. It is the approach a Prime Minister would take if he didn’t really care one way or the other if Britain stayed in the EU or drifted towards the exit. It is the course that might be expected from a Prime Minister who would rather not engage with the arguments if doing so conflicts with the task of appeasing habitually disloyal backbenchers and fomenting Ukip-friendly, anti-EU hysteria in the process. As a plan for leading the Conservative party that is short-sighted enough. As a way to lead the country it is desperately irresponsible.

David Cameron speaks during a press conference at an EU Council meeting on October 25, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

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

Ukip's Nigel Farage and Paul Nuttall. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Is the general election 2017 the end of Ukip?

Ukip led the way to Brexit, but now the party is on less than 10 per cent in the polls. 

Ukip could be finished. Ukip has only ever had two MPs, but it held an outside influence on politics: without it, we’d probably never have had the EU referendum. But Brexit has turned Ukip into a single-issue party without an issue. Ukip’s sole remaining MP, Douglas Carswell, left the party in March 2017, and told Sky News’ Adam Boulton that there was “no point” to the party anymore. 

Not everyone in Ukip has given up, though: Nigel Farage told Peston on Sunday that Ukip “will survive”, and current leader Paul Nuttall will be contesting a seat this year. But Ukip is standing in fewer constituencies than last time thanks to a shortage of both money and people. Who benefits if Ukip is finished? It’s likely to be the Tories. 

Is Ukip finished? 

What are Ukip's poll ratings?

Ukip’s poll ratings peaked in June 2016 at 16 per cent. Since the leave campaign’s success, that has steadily declined so that Ukip is going into the 2017 general election on 4 per cent, according to the latest polls. If the polls can be trusted, that’s a serious collapse.

Can Ukip get anymore MPs?

In the 2015 general election Ukip contested nearly every seat and got 13 per cent of the vote, making it the third biggest party (although is only returned one MP). Now Ukip is reportedly struggling to find candidates and could stand in as few as 100 seats. Ukip leader Paul Nuttall will stand in Boston and Skegness, but both ex-leader Nigel Farage and donor Arron Banks have ruled themselves out of running this time.

How many members does Ukip have?

Ukip’s membership declined from 45,994 at the 2015 general election to 39,000 in 2016. That’s a worrying sign for any political party, which relies on grassroots memberships to put in the campaigning legwork.

What does Ukip's decline mean for Labour and the Conservatives? 

The rise of Ukip took votes from both the Conservatives and Labour, with a nationalist message that appealed to disaffected voters from both right and left. But the decline of Ukip only seems to be helping the Conservatives. Stephen Bush has written about how in Wales voting Ukip seems to have been a gateway drug for traditional Labour voters who are now backing the mainstream right; so the voters Ukip took from the Conservatives are reverting to the Conservatives, and the ones they took from Labour are transferring to the Conservatives too.

Ukip might be finished as an electoral force, but its influence on the rest of British politics will be felt for many years yet. 

0800 7318496