Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Cameron's Folly

Ich bin ein Englander,
Frau Merkel!
One of my favourite pieces from Yes Minister is the piece where Jim Hacker, brushing off a local issue of seemingly little importance, has it explained to him that the issue could compromise him electorally.  He suddenly reassesses his interest, slips his hand inside the lapel of his jacket, and proclaims "but they are my people, and I am their leader!  I must follow them!"  David Cameron could have said as much today as he launched what his advisor should have called a brave initiative.  

By now, of course, it's everywhere.  Cameron has announced his intention to hold an 'in/out' referendum on Europe if he gets re-elected, and with a renegotiated 'in' proposition.  On the face of it, it appears overtly political.  It is tremendously difficult to see it as anything other than an attack on UKIP, and an attempt to woo back more former Tories who defected to New Labour under Blair.  It is also an acknowledgement that the economy will get worse before it gets better.  As the jobs position worsens, and as the Global economy continues to extricate itself from double dip crises on each side of the Atlantic, it's not clear that things are getting better soon.  The Eurozone and its Crisis hangs like an Albatross from the neck of Britain, so the Carmeron narrative goes.  Why should Greek impropriety affect Britain?  How come Eastern European workers are flooding into Britain, taking social welfare and jobs?  Isn't Turkey next?  Aren't there Moslems there?  The Cameron position is extraordinarily populist and plays to the xenophobic bigots that - in the Tory strategists view - hold the electoral balance of power. 

What Cameron has most certainly done is he has stolen UKIPs clothes.  Those who supported UKIP were traditionalist and conservative (with a small 'c') but discontented with Europe in particular.  This clearly moves the Tories into Euroskeptic party, rather than merely a party with a strong Euroskeptic wing.  There is a danger that it could envelop them entirely.  While the language in Cameron's speech reflected the considered views of his pro-Europe advisors (whoever they are), it is unlikely that the nuances will be recognised.  Cameron's in/out, black and white language, runs the risk of elevating Europe to the forefront of the debate in the next election - and with business, civil society and minority groups strongly in favour of the EU, I can't see it being a winning move. Cameron wants an in/out decision, but will be massively susceptible to the in/out question when he's asked to choose one or the other himself.  He won't commit.

There is a real danger that this could spin entirely out of control at this point.  Clegg has publicly stated the view that this plunges the UK into five years of uncertainty.  There's an easy way to fix that - and perhaps making the best of a bad lot, he'd be as well to pull the rug on this issue as a point of principle.

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