The EU flag and the Union Jack stand next to each others outside the European Commission building in Brussels. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

As the EU referendum battle begins, the advantage lies with the In campaign

The political narrowness of the Out side and the prominence of the toxic Farage could doom its chances. 

By the end of this parliament, the UK may no longer be a member of the European Union – but this was little discussed during the general election. At no point in the campaign – with the exception of Tony Blair’s speech on the subject on 7 April – did the issue acquire the prominence that it deserved. Partly owing to the mistaken belief of many that Ed Miliband would become prime minister, the prospect of a Labour-SNP alliance attracted far more scrutiny. After the Tories’ victory, it is the European question that will now define British politics. The bill guaranteeing a referendum by the end of 2017 was supreme among those included in the first Conservative Queen’s Speech in 19 years. No piece of legislation in recent decades has been as potentially consequential.

David Cameron has embarked on the dual task of winning over his EU partners and his party, so as to create the conditions for a successful renegotiation and an In vote. To the distaste of some, he used the Riga summit on European relations with Russia to open discussions with his foreign counterparts. His announcement that EU migrants and under-18s – two groups likely to favour membership – would be barred from voting in the referendum was intended to reassure Tory MPs and Eurosceptic voters that the ballot would not be “rigged”.

Four decades ago, not long after winning a similarly slim majority (and defying the opinion polls), Harold Wilson announced that a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Economic Community would be held within six months. These are far from the only parallels with today. Wilson, like Cameron, had initially resisted demands for a vote before relenting for the sake of Labour unity. As James Callaghan presciently observed in 1970, the policy was “a little rubber life raft into which the whole party may one day have to climb”. Rather than staging a referendum on the UK’s existing membership terms, Wilson also chose to pursue renegotiation. The concessions he secured, such as increased quotas for New Zealand butter and lamb (the country was a rival trade partner to Europe), were almost comically minimal. Yet the argument that the UK’s economic interests lay in continued membership (one championed by Margaret Thatcher, among others) trumped all else. The result was a decisive vote in favour of the status quo (67 per cent to 33 per cent).

Recent events have increased the confidence of the pro-EU side that history will repeat itself. The achievement of a Conservative majority has enhanced the authority of Cameron, who will be the de facto leader of the In campaign. Both his party and European partners are obliged to give him a fairer hearing than they anticipated. That the referendum is being held under a Tory prime minister is no small advantage for EU supporters. Under the “Nixon goes to China”principle, it is far easier for a Conservative Eurosceptic to win than it would be for a Labour Europhile. Cameron need not achieve all or even most of his aims, such as a four-year ban on welfare benefits for EU migrants and the exemption of the UK from “ever closer union” – merely enough to argue plausibly that a better deal is on offer.

As well as Cameron and other senior Tories, the pro-EU campaign will command the support of Labour (which has sensibly revoked its opposition to the referendum), the SNP (unlike in 1975), the Liberal Democrats, the Green Party, the CBI and the TUC. Their opponents will form a less eclectic coalition. Conservative MPs tell me that they expect up to a third of their number to campaign for withdrawal, among them current and former members of the cabinet such as Iain Duncan Smith, Chris Grayling and Owen Paterson. If Cameron is wise, he will again follow Wilson’s example and suspend collective ministerial responsibility, limiting the intensity of the split. Unfortunately for the Outers, those Tories poised to join them are hardly renowned for their public appeal.

This obstacle is modest compared to what Eurosceptics call “the Farage problem”. The Ukip leader is the country’s most visible proponent of EU withdrawal but he is incapable of winning over the moderates needed to deliver victory – and actively repels many of them. There is some polling evidence that Farage’s party has toxified the Eurosceptic brand as voters seek to avoid guilt by association. At the very moment that support for Ukip reached a record high last year, so did support for EU membership. Farage is a 15 per cent, not a 50 per cent politician. John Mills, the Eurosceptic Labour donor, who was national agent for the 1975 No campaign, told me: “You’ve got to have some kind of balance . . . to avoid it being polarised into Ukip against the rest of the country.” He suggested that Kate Hoey, the former Labour minister, should play a leading role. But there is no left-wing Eurosceptic of the stature of Tony Benn, Barbara Castle, Michael Foot or Peter Shore available. The death of the RMT general secretary Bob Crow last year deprived the Out campaign of another figure capable of reaching parts of the electorate that the Tories and Farage cannot.

The Eurosceptics’ great hope is that anti-establishment sentiment and discontent with the Conservatives will manifest itself through an Out vote. But the possibility of a referendum as early as next May reduces the risk of it functioning as a vehicle for midterm protest. Should economic growth collapse, the incentive to avoid further turbulence will only sharpen. History may yet record Cameron as the Prime Minister who presided over three referendums (on the Alternative Vote, Scottish independence and the EU) and preserved the status quo in each. For a Conservative leader, it would be an apt legacy.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Saying the Unsayable

Getty
Show Hide image

The most terrifying thing about Donald Trump's speech? What he didn't say

No politician uses official speeches to put across their most controversial ideas. But Donald Trump's are not hard to find. 

As Donald Trump took the podium on a cold Washington day to deliver his inauguration speech, the world held its breath. Viewers hunched over televisions or internet streaming services watched Trump mouth “thank you” to the camera, no doubt wondering how he could possibly live up to his deranged late-night Twitter persona. In newsrooms across America, reporters unsure when they might next get access to a president who seems to delight in denying them the right to ask questions got ready to parse his words for any clue as to what was to come. Some, deciding they couldn’t bear to watch, studiously busied themselves with other things.

But when the moment came, Trump’s speech was uncharacteristically professional – at least compared to his previous performances. The fractured, repetitive grammar that marks many of his off-the-cuff statements was missing, and so, too, were most of his most controversial policy ideas.

Trump told the crowd that his presidency would “determine the course of America, and the world, for many, many years to come” before expressing his gratefulness to President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama for their “gracious aid” during the transition. “They have been magnificent," Trump said, before leading applause of thanks from the crowd.

If this opening was innocent enough, however, it all changed in the next breath. The new president moved quickly to the “historic movement”, “the likes of which the world has never seen before”, that elected him President. Following the small-state rhetoric of his campaign, Trump promised to take power from the “establishment” and restore it to the American people. “This moment," he told them, “Is your moment. It belongs to you.”

A good deal of the speech was given over to re-iterating his nationalist positions while also making repeated references to the key issues – “Islamic terrorism” and families – that remain points of commonality within the fractured Republican GOP.

The loss of business to overseas producers was blamed for “destroying our jobs”. “Protection," Trump said, “Will lead to great strength." He promised to end what he called the “American carnage” caused by drugs and crime.

“From this day forward," Trump said, “It’s going to be only America first."

There was plenty in the speech, then, that should worry viewers, particularly if you read Trump’s promises to make America “unstoppable” so it can “win” again in light of his recent tweets about China

But it was the things Trump didn't mention that should worry us most. Trump, we know, doesn’t use official channels to communicate his most troubling ideas. From bizarre television interviews to his upsetting and offensive rallies and, of course, the infamous tweets, the new President is inclined to fling his thoughts into the world as and when he sees fit, not on the occasions when he’s required to address the nation (see, also, his anodyne acceptance speech).

It’s important to remember that Trump’s administration wins when it makes itself seem as innocent as possible. During the speech, I was reminded of my colleague Helen Lewis’ recent thoughts on the “gaslighter-in-chief”, reflecting on Trump’s lying claim that he never mocked a disabled reporter. “Now we can see," she wrote, “A false narrative being built in real time, tweet by tweet."

Saying things that are untrue isn’t the only way of lying – it is also possible to lie by omission.

There has been much discussion as to whether Trump will soften after he becomes president. All the things this speech did not mention were designed to keep us guessing about many of the President’s most controversial promises.

Trump did not mention his proposed ban on Muslims entering the US, nor the wall he insists he will erect between America and Mexico (which he maintains the latter will pay for). He maintained a polite coolness towards the former President and avoiding any discussion of alleged cuts to anti-domestic violence programs and abortion regulations. Why? Trump wanted to leave viewers unsure as to whether he actually intends to carry through on his election rhetoric.

To understand what Trump is capable of, therefore, it is best not to look to his speeches on a global stage, but to the promises he makes to his allies. So when the President’s personal website still insists he will build a wall, end catch-and-release, suspend immigration from “terror-prone regions” “where adequate screening cannot occur”; when, despite saying he understands only 3 per cent of Planned Parenthood services relate to abortion and that “millions” of women are helped by their cancer screening, he plans to defund Planned Parenthood; when the president says he will remove gun-free zones around schools “on his first day” - believe him.  

Stephanie Boland is digital assistant at the New Statesman. She tweets at @stephanieboland