David Cameron answers journalists' questions on May 27, 2014 as he arrives at the EU Headquarters in Brussels. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Cameron is running out of time to show that he is serious about keeping Britain in the EU

The Prime Minister should stop indulging the idea that Europe is a conspiracy perpetrated by other countries against Britain.

The Conservatives don’t have a position on EU membership but they have a trajectory. The motion is towards the view that Britain should leave; the speed is controlled by David Cameron’s ability to pretend that reform can persuade most Tories to stay.

If the next election is lost, that fiction will expire along with Cameron’s premiership. His successor would be chosen by despondent party members craving congress with schismatic Ukippers. Only Europhobic candidates need apply. If, on the other hand, Cameron wins a second term, he will discover before October 2017 – the date proposed for a referendum – that no amount of “renegotiation” can unify his party around an “in” campaign.

Cameron doesn’t want to be remembered as the prime minister who lost Britain’s EU membership by accident but his attachment to the project is plastic. It yields under pressure from anti-Brussels hardliners. Every precedent of his nine years leading the party suggests that if he felt his security as leader depended on making yet more concessions to the Brexit camp, he would do it.

The current Downing Street line has two strengths. First, it avoids civil strife in the party – there are, after all, still a handful of pro-European Tories and a silent agnostic majority that simply wants the issue neutralised. Second, it reflects what voters appear to want. Opinion polls show support for staying in a reformed EU to be the most desired outcome – a golden mean between quitting and the status quo. The way No 10 draws the map of European policy, Ukip occupies one fringe, banging the drum for embittered isolation, with the Liberal Democrats and Labour at the other extreme, drifting towards Euro-federation. In theory, that leaves Cameron in possession of the moderate, sceptical centre.

The obstacle to holding that course is the belief that Ukip is a lost tribe of the right that needs clutching ever tighter to the Conservative bosom. So Cameron is sure to come under pressure to toughen up his line on Europe in the coming months. Tories report their referendum offer is rejected on the doorstep as counterfeit currency – just another flimsy politician’s promise. The bigger concern is the way Nigel Farage has successfully conflated views about EU membership and anxiety over immigration. Ukip voters are not all fretting about constitutional cessions of parliamentary sovereignty but they do say they want the “gates shut”, which is incompatible with participation in the single European labour market.

For Tory sceptics, the natural conclusion is that changes to the rules on free movement of workers should top Britain’s list of renegotiation demands. Other EU leaders have made it clear that the principle of porous borders is sacrosanct. In any case, there won’t be any substantive discussions before May next year because other heads of government – chiefly the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, whom Cameron regards as the pivotal figure in his plan – are waiting to see whether the Tories can survive a general election before deciding how likely the prospect of a British exit is.

Meanwhile, the UK’s diplomatic capital in Brussels is running low. Merkel is unimpressed by the decision of Tory MEPs to make common cause in the European Parliament with Alternative for Germany, a fringe party hostile to the single currency. The alliance compounds the offence caused in 2009 when Cameron took the Conservatives out of the European People’s Party (EPP) – the mainstream centre-right group of which Merkel’s Christian Democrats are lead players. German officials and diplomats are scathing about that choice, seeing it as a naive and self-defeating gesture that surrendered British influence in exchange for a moment’s respite from implacable Tory MPs. Merkel took some persuading that Cameron should be taken seriously after such an elementary blunder.

On another front, Cameron is campaigning to block the appointment of Jean-Claude Juncker, a former prime minister of Luxembourg, as the next president of the European Commission. (Even quite ardent British pro-Europeans fear that Juncker’s unrepentant federalism would be counterproductive.) That the Tories would have more of a say in the matter had they stayed in the EPP is a point made with some relish by those in Brussels who are tired of British equivocation and who doubt that Cameron’s heart is really in the EU.

It is still possible that Juncker will be thwarted, in which case No 10 will boast that Cameron’s way works after all and that supine Europhiles are always too quick to surrender. But each time the Conservative leader advertises himself as the antidote to whatever is brewing in Brussels, it becomes harder to see how he can one day stand at the front of Britain’s “in” campaign.

The logic of the referendum policy is that the threat of exit must be real if other countries are to be jolted into making concessions. Yet there are no concessions that can satisfy those Tories who only ever wanted a threat of exit so that it could one day be realised.

If the Prime Minister is serious about keeping Britain inside the EU, he would stop indulging the idea that Europe is a conspiracy perpetrated by other countries against Britain. He would defend Brussels institutions and their founding principles and support, without queasy caveat, the idea of free labour movement. He would push back when his MPs nudge him towards the exit. He would declare that Conservatives do not believe “out” at all costs is a sensible position. He would, in other words, alter the trajectory of his party. He does none of those things and it is almost impossible to imagine him doing them before the election. Afterwards it may be too late. 

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

This article first appeared in the 04 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, 100 days to save Great Britain

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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.