Wednesday January 23rd 2013 – the day that Cameron stopped trying to modernise the Conservative Party

25th January, 2013 1:40 pm

By Alan Johnson MP

David Cameron’s speech on Europe has demonstrated his weakness rather than his strength.  No Prime Minister in their right mind would want Britain to leave the European Union.

Whilst I don’t agree with every aspect of the vision that Cameron set out for a reformed Europe, there is consensus over much of this, for instance the completion of the Single Market, and had this been the sole content, the speech could even have been described as Prime Ministerial.

These problems in Europe need to be grappled with immediately by politicians who are aware that negotiations do not succeed by ultimatum but by patient argument, building alliances and forging consensus.

Cameron moved from what’s necessary in the national interest to the machinations of the Conservative Party in the final part of his speech and Ed Miliband is absolutely right to say that threatening an in/out referendum is the worst way to approach this issue.

Here’s a quote from one of Mr Cameron’s predecessors that should have influenced his approach:

“It is a matter of profound regret to me that much political energy is still devoted to the hoary question of whether we should be in or out.  We must not allow ourselves to be deflected into an arid debate about the past and away from our purpose, which is to build a strong and enduring community and to improve Britain’s position within it”. 

Those were the words of Margaret Thatcher.

By introducing that “hoary question” into his speech, the Prime Minister has ensured that nothing meaningful will happen in terms of British influence on EU reform for two to three years. Thereafter those discussions will take place against a self-imposed deadline.  I can’t think of a better way to make failure in those negotiations a near certainty.  Furthermore the gap between what Cameron can realistically achieve and his Party zealots expect is in my view too huge to bridge.

All of that will be academic if the Conservatives fail to win the next general election.  They believe that the public is obsessed with Europe and they worry that UKIP are luring their voters.  Instead of taking on those in his ranks who never stop banging on about Europe, Cameron’s decided to give in to them.  There is not a single aspect of David Cameron’s speech that addresses the central problem of our flat-lining economy.  Indeed, because of its use of threat and ultimatum and the uncertainty it creates about our future, it can only do further damage.

Cameron is too smart a politician to have wanted to include an in/out referendum in his speech. The problem is that he is too weak a politician to have excluded it.  Wednesday January 23rd 2013 was the day that Cameron stopped trying to modernise the Conservative Party and it is the Conservative Party that will suffer as a consequence.

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  • Jeremy_Preece

    Alan, I find it hard to guess how the “in/out” vote is going to play out. It is true that for many in the real world they care about the loss of income, price rise, job losses, insecurity of job, salary freeze and so on.

    To my mind Cameron has tried a simple ploy to carve out for himself a slice of the UKIP vote. Interestingly today on the YouGov site there is a suggestion that actually Europe is not a main conern of those who say that they would vote UKIP. Instead it seems that UKIP has picked up the protest vote, which of course the LibDems cannot have if they are part of the current government. The implication is that the ploy of Cameron will not work. Let’s hope so and that that is right.

    As you say, I think that there is a real sense in which the Tory divisions are coming to the surface again. Having a coalition means that observers are so caught up with Tory / LibDem splits that it is often easy to miss the inter Tory splits. There certainly is a huge ultra-right knee-jerk anti Europe wing of the Tories, and Cameron is actaully in trouble.

    To my mind Cameron is a magician in the Paul Daniels style. He talks and he distracts so that you don’t actually see the slight of hand. The real diversion would seem to be to divert Tory voters from the awful economic news.

    So I think that Labour should now be focusing on economics, which is also what the electorate cares about, nad leave the few inside the Tory bubble to bang on about Europe as the public switch off from them.
    From other coversations on LabourList it is quite clear that Cameron has lied about the public debt, and that most ordinary people (myself included) and not 100% clear about the debt and deficit. Information is out there but not being communicated to the public, and that information shows that the media and Tory line that Labour cause the recession and that the Tory policy is working are absoultey untrue.
    Moreover we are learning about the true cost of the negative effect of the austerity measures. The loss of proper fulltime real jobs and the replacement by part-time low quality jobs is another area that needs to be researched, explained and put out into the public arena. The chief IMF economist is amoungst those criticising Cameron/Osborne, this is not some Labour Party group.
    The whole economic justification for what they have done is over keeping the UK AAA credit rating and now even this is under threat because of the overzeolous cuts. In fact the economy has shrunk and we are going down the road of a tripple-dip recession. Labour needs to be getting this out into the public arena.
    Unemployment and its increase is a direct result of this government’s cuts. It has caused and is causing huge damage to the country, the economy and socailly in terms of people’s lives. Again Cameron is distracting us with tales of a tiny minority of benefit abuse (costing thousands) which distracts us from the billions of punds large corporations are getting out of paying.
    Using the deficit as an excuse we have seen a long list of toxic policies, pay cuts and pay freezes, tax credits destroyed and the public sector getting an axe taken to it. The result is economic stagnation, high unemployment and now obvioulsy a government debt which the PM is dirsectly lying about.
    The whole debt/deficit thing is (as some of us have been saying for two years) just a cover for the Tories to get away with the most ultra right wing policies that they could never have got away with unless they had persuaded the public that it is a real emergency.
    We might also like to set the records straight about allowing Labour to take the blame for the banking crisis, and stand up to the lie that somehow it was all Labour’s fault and the Tories would have made it better.
    By the way, the powers that Britian needs to take back, the Tories will argue are the ones which offer basic safgaurds to ordinary people.
    These Alan are the real issues. Let’s not see Labour take on Cameron’s rhetoric, and let’s not attack his smoke and mirror images. Labour must go for the real issues and keep on shouting louder and louder.
    In just over a month we have gone from a 20% lead in those who want out of Europe to a point where in and out are neck and neck. This is a result of economic argument and putting the case clearly to the public. The public otherwise have only the media from where to get their information.
    This also shows that if Labour can get the upper hand in economics, and can show the real damage that the Tories have done then we can win in 2015, and we can only do that if we also have also won the economic argument.
    Let’s leave Cameron to bang on about Europe and just put the fact forward. The wisest manager I ever worked for told me that when a project manager leaps up and down pointing the finger he is really saying “please dont’ look at me I want you to look at where I am pointing”, and that when senior management look at the manager and not where he is pointing, it is then that the problem becomes clear.

  • NT86

    In my mind it was political short-termism by a PM who is scared crap about the prospect of UKIP and Nigel Farage destroying Tory prospects at the 2015 general election. Given the integrity of most PM’s we’ve had over the years, I seriously doubt this was anything other than self-interest. In principle I don’t oppose a referendum on EU membership. It’s just the timing and ulterior motives of Cameron I’m a tad concerned about. I wouldn’t favour absolute withdrawal, but you’d be very foolish to think that the EU doesn’t need substantial reform.

    These next few years will be vital for both pro and anti EU sides to make their cases. What we need is an open and honest debate on our membership based on facts and evidence. Not overzealous Euroscepticism or even overzealous Europhilia. For Labour, the party line is to rule out a referendum, but it’s a shame that Ed Miliband hasn’t considered ideas of reforming or renegotiating terms so as to steer to a middle ground approach. Labour missed the boat with a possible referendum on the Lisbon Treaty so it is a shame that they take this line at the moment.

    An interesting point to note is that this question could reveal that there’s more pro-Tories than we expect. There was an open letter to David Cameron by so called “Eurorealist” backbenchers recently: http://britishinfluence.tumblr.com/post/40747671433/letter-from-eurorealist-tory-mps-to-the-prime-minister

    As you can see, it features relatively prominent Tory MPs like Malcolm Rifkind, Nicholas Soames, Caroline Spelman and Stephen Dorrell. All of whom have served in the Cabinet and/or Shadow Cabinet previously.

    Likewise there are Eurosceptic Labour MP’s like Frank Field, Kate Hoey and Gisela Stuart (all have whom have served as ministers in the past).

    • Alexwilliamz

      This party doesn’t need farage to mess up their prospects, their economic policy plus some consequences of their other policies will see to that. There will be just enough time for some truly tragic consequences of reforms to health, welfare and education to kick in before the next election. All too depressing.

    • Alexwilliamz

      The point is just that a referendum after Lisbon could have been justified, a random referendum undermines our entire foreign credibility. Any treaty we sign will not be worth the paper it is written on if the other parties know we might break faith following a referendum at any point.

  • postageincluded

    Yes, he’s given aiming at the centre ground. He’s decided that half a loaf is better than none and he’s playing for Coalition Mk II. Even if his lurch to recover his defectors to UKIP loses him some Europhile voters to Clegg, well so what! LDs are more obedient coalition members than his own backbenchers.

    I notice Nick is helping Dave out by presenting himself as more leftish again, trying to win back coalition voters from Labour just at the precise moment Cameron turns right. Coincidence? Or a ruse to protect his master’s exposed flank?

  • Alexwilliamz

    When did he genuinely try and modernise them? Everything we have seen has been classic neo liberal Toryism. Bash the poor, attack public servants/service, back door privatisation, alienating us in Europe and economic policy aimed at keeping certain sectors of the economies happy while screwing the rest.

  • I agree that Cameron has not only done extreme damage to his party by moving off the centre ground, but Ed Miliband should have called for an in/out referendum before Cameron. Sadly, he bottled it.

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