George Osborne will not mention Ukip by name in his speech to the CBI today, but it will be clear that he has them in mind when he says:
Political parties on the left and the populist right have this in common: they want to pull up the drawbridge and shut Britain off from the world.
They want to constrain foreign investment in our economy, and deprive us of the British jobs that it has created in industries from car manufacturing to energy. They want to set prices, regulate incomes, impose rent controls, wage war on big business, demonise wealth creation, renationalise industries — and pretend that they can re-establish control over all aspects of the economy.
The Chancellor’s attacks on Labour are nothing new (although as a supposed friend of the minimum wage it’s odd to hear him denounce Ed Miliband for wanting to “regulate incomes”) but more striking is his decision to brand Nigel Farage’s party a threat to the economy. In a direct echo of Nick Clegg’s language, he denounces Ukip’s support for immediate EU withdrawal as an attempt to “pull up the drawbridge and shut Britain off from the world”.
Europhiles will note the irony that it is Osborne’s party that has threatened the UK’s EU membership by pledging to hold an in/out referendum by 2017. In his interview on Today on Monday, Miliband described the possibility of withdrawal as “the biggest threat to prosperity”. Many businesses are far more worried by the Tories’ euroscepticism than they are by Labour’s proposed energy price freeze or the reintroduction of the 50p tax rate. Martin Sorrell recently revealed that he and others had told David Cameron that “if he were to drop the referendum he would be a shoo-in”. That’s almost certainly not the case (as Sorrell appeared to forget, most voters support a referendum) but it shows how desperate businesses are for Britain to remain in the EU.
To this, Osborne would reply that it is only by renegotiating the UK’s relationship with Brussels that the government can preserve its membership. As he argued in his recent speech to Open Europe: “If you cannot protect the collective interests of non-eurozone member states, then they will have to choose between joining the eurozone, which the UK will not do, or leave the European Union…I believe it is in no-one’s interests for Britain to come to face a choice between joining the euro or leaving the European Union. We don’t want to join the euro, but also our withdrawal from a Europe which succeeded in reforming would be bad for Britain. And a country of the size and global reach of Britain leaving would be very bad for the European Union.”
But if Osborne is committed to reforming the EU, his contempt for those who favour automatic withdrawal (“they want to pull up the drawbridge and shut Britain off from the world”) is also clear. And that is not just an attack on Ukip but on a significant number in his own party. That, in turn, suggests that Osborne is confident that he’ll be in government after 2015, potentially as Foreign Secretary, rather than wooing EU opponents in a Conservative leadership election.