Angela Merkel says changing free movement rules is the UK's "point of no return". Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

What does Merkel's "red line" on EU migration rules mean for British politics?

Germany would sacrifice UK’s EU membership in order not to compromise the EU’s principle of free movement of workers. What are the political implications?

Angela Merkel has made some highly telling comments about the future of Britain’s EU membership.

The German magazine Der Spiegel reports that she would accept UK’s exit from the European Union in order not to compromise over the core principle of free movement of workers. This suggests that she would refuse David Cameron’s attempt at curbing the level of EU migrants entering Britain in any future renegotiation.

Reportedly, Merkel sees any attempted change to the freedom of movement rules as the “point of no return” for the UK’s EU membership. The Guardian reports that Merkel has warned Cameron about this, and that Downing Street has not denied that such a conversation took place.

What does this mean for British politics?

 

David Cameron

Comments like this make things very difficult for the Prime Minister. He has said that changing EU rules about migrants would be “at the very heart of my renegotiation strategy for Europe”.

But he hasn’t so far said that he would campaign for an Out vote in a future EU referendum if he doesn’t achieve the renegotiation he’s aiming for – partly because he needs to appear to have faith in his renegotiation, and mainly because he believes in the benefits of Britain’s EU membership.

The idea of Cameron being unable to achieve such a renegotiation – and therefore unable to curb immigration from EU member states to the UK – is what allows Ukip, disillusioned voters and his more eurosceptic backbenchers (and, privately, frontbenchers) to say he lacks credibility on the EU issue.

 

Tory backbenchers

Not all Conservative backbenchers, but many of the “awkward squad” eurosceptic and generally rebellious rightwingers, will use this as yet another opportunity to criticise their leadership for delaying an EU referendum until 2017, and waiting for a renegotiation which will not bring the changes they so desire. Indeed, many of them would prefer the renegotiation not to work so that the only option would be to leave the European Union.

However, the eurosceptics have always been troublemakers on the EU. What should be more worrying to the Tory leadership is those in the party with more nuanced views towards Europe seeing the PM lose further credibility in Brussels. One usually loyal Tory MP told me that, “no one believes him [David Cameron]” when he talks about calling a referendum, let alone achieving a beneficial renegotiation.

David Davis, an influential former Tory minister, and a eurosceptic MP who doesn’t call for outright departure from the EU, told the BBC’s Today programme this morning: “we should have started renegotiating much earlier. Both sides [anti-EU voices in Britain, and EU states who want Britain to stay] don’t really believe you when you really do mean it.”

Davis also said a “red line” for Britain “has got to be a change of the so-called free movement rules” and that concessions on benefit changes are “not enough”. He argued that Cameron should give a suggestion to Germany and the EU leadership that there is a prospect that Britain could leave, if they don’t compromise: “If you’re going to get the Europeans to take you seriously, you’ve got to hold out the prospect of leaving”. He revealed that there are “quite a few cabinet ministers who do believe that”.

 

Ukip

One of the major factors behind Ukip shoring up the Tory vote in many constituencies is that it calls itself the only party that would take Britain out of the European Union. It has a very simply message: the Prime Minister would not be able to negotiate a curb on EU migrant levels, and the only way for him to do it would be to take the UK out of the European Union. Merkel’s comments give Ukip more ammunition when saying that Cameron’s planned renegotiation is impossible.

 

Labour

Although on the surface a weakened Prime Minister is Brussels provides an opportunity for the opposition to question his credibility, this isn’t good news for the Labour party.

Labour is the only main party that has not agreed to support an EU referendum – even the Greens would back one – and is serious about making the business case in favour of Britain’s membership, with its recent appointment of Pat McFadden MP as shadow Europe minister. Although there has been a dilemma among its MEPs and national party on its approach to defending UK in the EU, as I reported last week, the party does now acknowledge that it must up its game on this. Merkel’s comments make it harder for Labour to make a positive, but popular, case for remaining in the EU. The party must identify, and agree to solve, problems with Britain's membership if it makes it to government.

According to the respected MP and former Labour frontbencher Alan Johnson, Labour must be prepared to use its diplomacy to achieve its own renegotiation of the free movement rule. Johnson told me last week:

Away from the childish shenanigans of Cameron, who really hasn't learnt the ABC of negotiation, [we must] say we're the answer to solving some of those problems, including some of the issues around free movement, which in a proper dialogue amongst allies, without threats, I think we'd find a lot of support around Europe for changes to the system, now that there's 28 member states and not six. We have to make that argument without chasing a Ukip vote, trying to out-Ukip Ukip. We'll leave that to the Tories.

Labour articulating the need to achieve "reform within Europe", as voiced by shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander today, means that Merkel could just as easily refuse to compromise with a Labour leader attempting to renegotiate Britain's position in the EU.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.