The Daily Telegraph, a loose ally of the main governing party in the UK, has thundered with an analysis under the headline of Cameron’s speech has trapped Labour and might even save the Tories but conversely the British Prime Minister’s speech yesterday offering electors a choice on Europe is a fudge and risks wiping out his mandate to govern.
It might be better to speculate whether David Cameron is the one who is trapped. Three years ago a vote on the EU was at best contingent and not a policy initiative. Since then, the coalition with pro-European Liberal Democrats has soured over a series of policy rifts and the Lib Dems find their political future on Death Row with the electorate.
Nothing to lose?
Cameron has little to lose by not appeasing his coalition partners, a lot to gain from calming his Eurosceptic backbenches, and a swift chance to govern alone after the General Election due by May 2015.
Looks good on paper. But is this really going to work? Top marks for trying to steal the advantage, Prime Minister. But the problem is that the delays in bringing this jinxed speech to the public has numbed his position and given a once-irrelevant party called UKIP the golden opportunity to dictate policy. Perhaps fate was trying to save Cameron from delivering his speech.
For this speech, touted since September, has been touched up over a series of months so that by now of course it should become an instant best-seller – at least on the library shelves.
But the problem is that it is likely to be seen as a response to UKIP’s growing support. Opinion polls in January have indicated that the Lib Dems, the second opposition party in Britain, are now banished to fourth place behind UKIP – a party who would love to negotiate Britain out of the EU.
The problem for Cameron is not how he looked on camera, or how the press will convey his smooth, and elegant speech. We already know he has had five months to prepare it!
Far more importantly what exactly did Cameron hope to deliver, and will it even happen?
He is offering a referendum to UK electors by end 2017 – after the next election – as a response to any further EU treaty and use that to wrench back powers lost to Brussels. Otherwise, he claims, Britain might drift to the exit of the EU anyway.
Quite likely, Cameron has been struck by nostalgia for the “People’s Premier” Harold Wilson’s gambit in 1974. Labour was unhappy with the way Edward Heath’s Conservatives had negotiated Britain’s admission to the EU (then called the European Economic Community) in 1972. After the UK’s entry on 1 January 1973, Labour plotted to upstage the Tories.
After winning a thin “minority government” mandate at the February 1974 polls, Wilson pledged to hold a renegotiation with Brussels to see if better terms could be achieved and then hold a referendum to see if Britain would accept them, or possibly exit the EEC.
That pledge strengthened Wilson. At a hastily called second General Election in October 1974 Wilson won a majority in Westminster and, after hinting that the terms reached at a meeting with European leaders in Dublin in March 1975 did improve Britain’s lot, he announced that within a few months a referendum would decide Britain’s fate in Europe.
On June 5, 1975, Britain voted 67% “YES” to European membership and the government came out of it with a measured victory, plus that coveted majority government in late 1974. Later years might force Labour into a pact in parliament with the Lib Dems, then known as the Liberal Party, but that should not confuse the immediate issue. It was a vote winner.
Cameron may well be looking at this episode and wondering whether he can pull off a similar victory, but possibly in the opposite direction – putting Britain on a warpath with Europe. Or possibly doing enough to ensure a future within the EU, like Labour did 40 years ago.
For Cameron is not promising an “exit EU” vote. It has been portrayed as a “in-out” referenduim but it is far from that in the small print. He is just asking Britons, who are growing increasingly Eurosceptical, to judge a further power grab by crisis-riddled Brussels. As for talk of joining the euro currency, that could not be further from debate in Britain today.
Too Much, Too Little, Too Late we knew it had to end
The problem for Cameron is that, by delaying the speech, he is Johnny-Come-Lately on the EU debate. And his measured efforts about a future EU treaty appear weak and only managed to spur US President Barack Obama to intervene and urge Britain to do nothing that knocks it out of the “heart of Europe”.
The prime minister may hope that his speech kills off the shoots of support for UKIP and helps him pull away from pro-Europe Lib Dems.
But by delaying the speech and then promising action only after the next election, UKIP Nigel Farage already has the taste of power on his lips. He will not become premier, but he may well become king-maker. For if the electorate feels that Cameron is trying to buy their votes in time for the next election, and worse, confusing them on what he hopes to deliver, surely it will backfire. Furthermore, there is no guarantee that the referendum will even be staged. What if Cameron says in 2016 that current circumstances make it impossible or undesirable to hold such a vote. There is no contract saying he must. And many opposition parties have backtracked on sweeping policy initiatives soon after gaining power. The mandarins of Whitehall are everywhere, and quite frankly in ost terms budget-slashing Britain cannot afford to host a referendum!
So with doubts and confusion prevailing over an EU referendum and a continued economy at risk of being downgraded from AAA by ratings agencies, voters will continue to desert the Tories as they have been doing since the coalition government formed in May 2010.
New political map of Britain
Draining support from the Tories usually results in two scenarios, which are not mutually exclusive. Firstly, voters tactically look toward who else is capable of forming a government. And in that the Lib Dems dropped the ball. We have had one nation-wide referendum from this coalition already. It was in 2011 on the Alternative Vote as a means of securing the smaller parties like the Lib Dems more seats in parliament relative to their popular support and votes cast. But Britain voted “NO”. Not that it really matters now that Lib Dem support is behind UKIP.
So that leaves Labour the natural recipients of disaffected voters.
But the other scenario that could play out is that Cameron continues to lose support and it goes to UKIP, a party which many Tories now believe best reflects their aspirations.
In that case, we could have a hung parliament, with neck-and-neck Labour and Conservatives in Westminster, and king-maker Farage holding the balance of power.
And yet, it is not a foregone conclusion that this will be enough to keep Cameron in Downing Street. If Farage sees more value siding with the eurosceptic wing of the Labour Party, as alive now as it was during the 1975 EEC referendum, who knows?