Cameron’s European confusion, no rush for the Grexit, Lords legitimacy and a royal snapper

Ignore the Eeyores who say Labour can’t win the next election. I am more optimistic about its chances in 2020 than I ever was about 2015.

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Confusion has come early to David Cameron’s plans to renegotiate Britain’s EU membership and put the result to a referendum. First, according to reports, he said that if he thought the deal good enough to recommend staying in the EU, he would not allow ministers to campaign for an Out vote. Now, he insists he said (or meant to say) that ministers “have to take the view that we are engaged in a process of renegotiation . . . that will lead to a successful outcome”.

That seems to mean that the old rules of cabinet collective responsibility will apply while Cameron is negotiating. Ministers will not be allowed to think, still less to say, that Cameron is such a plonker that he’s bound to be outsmarted, or that we’d anyway be best off without those pesky Continentals. Cameron will decide later what happens during the referendum campaign itself. “Today it is very clear,” he says, a tacit admission that it wasn’t clear yesterday and probably won’t be tomorrow, either.

In fairness to Cameron, the 1975 referendum was also confusing: Harold Wilson allowed seven out of the 23 Labour cabinet members to support the Out campaign while requiring them to support the government’s In policy when they spoke from the despatch box. But the forces in favour of withdrawal were then far weaker than now.

So, we should expect more confusion. Will we understand whether Cameron himself is advocating an In or Out vote when we get to the referendum? I wouldn’t be surprised if he put one case one day and the other the next, rather as the Independent’s election campaign editorials used to do when the paper made a fetish of its political neutrality.

All this is (or ought to be) immensely encouraging for Labour. Its own splits over Europe led to the defection of leading figures to the SDP, dividing the left and allowing the Tories to govern for 18 years. The Tories’ splits over Europe helped to bring down Margaret Thatcher and eventually usher in Labour’s 13 years in power. Ignore the Eeyores who say Labour can’t win the next election. I am more optimistic about its chances in 2020 than I ever was about 2015.

 

Greece’s long goodbye

If the prospects for Brexit are confusing, those for Grexit are less so. EU leaders, though they well know that loans to Greece will never be repaid whatever happens, will not give way to the ruling party, Syriza. They see it as a “far-left” party and they don’t want to encourage the electorates of other EU countries, particularly Spain, to think that there is anything to gain by electing similar governments.

On the other hand, they don’t want a “failed state” inside the EU (or, in the event of Grexit, just outside its borders) and they certainly don’t want Greece to turn to Russia or China for assistance. So, the present stalemate suits the Greek government and its creditors and will most likely continue for months, if not years. In media parlance, the country will remain perpetually “on the brink” with an alleged “crunch point” always just ahead.

 

The people’s lords

I don’t believe in a supreme being nor do I favour an unelected second chamber. But just now, I am thanking God for the House of Lords. Though Ukip, the Greens and the SNP can all claim to be badly under-represented, the composition of the Lords bears a closer resemblance to the electorate’s party preferences than that of the Commons, particularly if you count bishops, crossbenchers and non-affiliated peers (34 per cent of the total) as equivalent to non-voters (also 34 per cent) in last month’s general election.

With some claim to legitimacy, therefore, the Lords could at least delay or modify the more contentious Tory legislation. For once, the Lib Dems are over-represented, and their 101 peers (12.8 per cent of the total) are likely to take the lead in, for example, demanding a referendum vote for 16- and 17-year-olds, opposing the nastiest welfare cuts and diluting attacks on human rights and civil liberties. I hope the Tories won’t complain too much. They had an inbuilt Lords majority for years – at the start of the 20th century, 85 per cent of peers were Conservatives or allied Liberal Unionists – so they should not resent now being in a minority just as they are in the country. Perhaps the experience will persuade them to support proper Lords reform.

 

Royal family album

Kate Middleton – that’s the wife of Prince William, second in line to the throne, for those who, like me, find it difficult to keep up – has taken some photographs of her own children. They are, newspapers report in awestruck tones, “sublime portraits” and “utterly beautiful images”. That may be so but thousands of parents take photographs of their babies every day and I have never heard anybody disparaging a single one of them. We are now too sophisticated to praise members of the royal family for their magical healing powers or for presiding over bountiful harvests. Instead, we profess amazement that they can boil kettles, do the washing-up and take photographs in just the same way as anyone else can.

 

Passport perks

During a few days in Budapest, I was surprised to discover that, being over 65 and a citizen of an EU country, I was entitled to free use of all public transport simply by waving my passport at any uniformed official I encountered. The underground system, the oldest in the world after London’s, was particularly useful and efficient but also charmingly quaint, in that station escalators were guarded by men who were supposed to check tickets (and presumably passports) but spent their time ignoring passengers and chatting to each other.

As far as I know, similar transport perks are not available to EU over-65s visiting Britain. I trust Nigel Farage and Eurosceptic Tories will campaign to stop this shameful imposition on Hungary’s hard-working farepayers and taxpayers.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article appears in the 11 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Who owns the future?

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