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

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Goodbye, Sam Allardyce: a grim portrait of national service

In being brought down by a newspaper sting, the former England manager joins a hall of infamy. 

It took the best part of 17 years for Glenn Hoddle’s reputation to recover from losing the England job.

Between leaving his job as manager in February 1999 and re-surfacing as a television pundit on ITV during the 2014 World Cup, Hoddle was English football’s great pariah. Thanks to his belief in faith healer Eileen Drewery and a string of unconventional and unacceptable views on reincarnation, he found himself in exile following in a newspaper interview during qualification for England’s Euro 2000 campaign.

But just as Hoddle is now cautiously being welcomed back to the bosom of English football, current incumbent Sam Allardyce has felt the axe fall. After less than two months in charge of the national side and with only a single game under his belt, the former Bolton Wanderers manager was caught up in a sting operation by the Daily Telegraph — allegedly offering guidance on how to circumvent his employer’s rules on third-party player ownership.

The rewards for guiding an English team to major international success promise to be spectacular. As a result, the price for any failure — either moral or performance-related — is extreme.

Hoddle’s successor – the endearing Kevin Keegan – resigned tearfully in a toilet at Wembley after a tumultuous 18-month spell in charge. His replacement, the laconic Sven-Göran Eriksson, provided moments of on-field excitement paired with incredible incidents of personal indiscretion. His tangle with "fake sheikh" Mazher Mahmood in the run up to the 2006 World Cup – an incident with haunting parallels to Allardyce’s current predicament – led to a mutual separation that summer.

Steve McClaren was hapless, if also incredibly unfortunate, and was dispatched from the top job in little over a year. Fabio Capello – who inspired so much optimism throughout his first two years in charge – proved himself incapable of lifting the hex on English major tournament fortunes.

The Italian’s star was falling from the moment he put his name to the oddly timed Capello Index in 2010, although his sustained backing of then captain John Terry over a string of personal misdemeanours would prove to be the misjudgement that ultimately forced his exit. As Allardyce has found out, the FA has become increasingly hard on lapses in moral judgement.

English football is suffused with a strange mix of entitlement and crushing self-doubt. After a decade that has given us a Wimbledon champion, several Ashes triumphs, two Tour de France winners and eye-watering Olympic success, a breakthrough in this area has never felt further away.

In replacing Capello, Roy Hodgson — the man mocked by Allardyce during his hours supping pints with Telegraph reporters — had hoped to put a rubber stamp on a highly respectable coaching career with a spell managing his own country. But this summer’s farcical defeat to Iceland at Euro 2016 put his previous career in a much harsher light.    

Allardyce was a mix of the best and worst of each of his predecessors. He was as gaffe-prone as Steve McClaren, yet as committed to football science and innovation as Hodgson or Capello. He also carried the affability of Keegan and the bulldog spirit of Terry Venables — the last man to make great strides for England at a major tournament.  

And as a result, his fall is the most heartbreaking of the lot. The unfairly decried charlatan of modern football is the same man who built a deeply underrated dynasty at Bolton before keeping Blackburn, West Ham and Sunderland afloat in the most competitive league in Europe.

And it was this hard apprenticeship that convinced the FA to defy the trendy naysayers and appoint him.

“I think we make mistakes when we are down here and our spirit has to come back and learn,” Hoddle mused at the beginning of his ill-fated 1999 interview. As the FA and Allardyce consider their exit strategy from this latest sorry mess, it’s difficult to be sure what either party will have learned.

The FA, desperately short of options could theoretically turn again to a reborn Hoddle. Allardyce, on the other hand, faces his own long exile. 

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