This morning David Cameron is making his much (much) delayed “tantric” (shudder) Europe speech. In it he will try to portray himself as many things – democrat, Eurosceptic, diplomat – but an no point will he admit the role that has dragged him into this position – leader of a party without a majority.
The sad truth is that rather than Cameron’s plan for an EU referendum being borne out of economic necessity or political choice, it’s something he has been forced to do by the extremist right-wing of his party (step forward Peter Bone et al) who without a referendum would become unmanageable for the next 30 months – threatening his leadership. This speech, and the referendum that may come from it – is a desperate attempt by Cameron to hold his party together for long enough to get through the 2015 election.
The next election looms large when considering Cameron’s rationale for making this speech.
After all, the next election is pivotal to Cameron’s ability to offer a referendum, because it’s not something that’s in his power go give any sooner – thanks to the Lib Dems. So for Cameron to make good on his big pledge today he’ll need to achieve something he’s never managed before – a majority.
Currently the electoral arithmetic looks pretty grim for the Tories. Without boundary changes such an outcome seems difficult to imagine. But electoral arithmetic (alongside party management) is a large part of why we’re here today. Cameron thinks by announcing a referendum four years hence (post-renogotiation*) he can unite his party and kill off the UKIP threat.
He’s wrong on both counts.
His party will still remain fractious over gay marriage, any nod to social liberalism anything that the Lib Dems like. And the UKIP threat will continue – because it’s not (just) about Europe (only 18% of UKIP voters said Europe was one of their major concerns in a recent poll) and because Nigel Farage and his motley crew absolutely loathe Cameron and his party, and have intention of easing off. The Tories may claw back a few points in the polls – but UKIP are a factor in national politics for the foreseeable future.
Cameron is banking on his promise of an EU referendum far off into he future (with many ifs and buts along the way) as a game changer that will set the Tories on course for a majority in 2015. In a country where only 6% of people consider Europe a priority that’s deluded. What is far more likely to be a game changer this week is if the economy is revealed to have shrunk once again when GDP figures are released on Friday.
But by introducing the possibility of a referendum that will spook the business community – Cameron has already chosen party management and Europe over the economy anyway. And he has forgotten the golden rule of politics – that the public rarely share the obsessions of politicians. But they do suffer as a result. For shame.
(* Of course what Cameron means when he says “renegotiation” is that he wants Britain out of the Social Chapter – which would mean losing swathes of rights in the workplace. Apart from being disastrous for millions of workers, other EU leaders will never agree to it. By contrast when Labour says renegotiate, the meaning is a more democratic union, and cutting the bloated EU Commission. Both parties want rid of the “second seat” in Strasbourg – both are right. But it won’t happen.)