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