Is Britain going to ‘leave Europe’? The phrase has a slightly absurd ring, as if UK politicians could speed up continental drift and deposit the country somewhere off Massachusetts. In fact, the Atlanticist Europhobes in the Tory party and UKIP had been swatted even before the prime minister made his ‘defining’ speech on Europe, as Obama’s people made clear that the president had told Cameron he wants Britain to stay in. No matter. UKIP is on a roll and Cameron’s running scared. A Sun poll had the purple party on 11 per cent in November, which could do all manner of damage to Cameron’s re-election chances, even though the Liberal Democrat vote sits like a chocolate rabbit on a radiator, waiting for the heating to come on, and the Conservatives stand to benefit most from their partners’ meltdown.
Hence Wednesday’s handbag-swinging over Europe – or rather ‘Europe’, which has long done duty as an all-weather bad-karma dumpster for the Tory right. But as their former deputy chair Michael Ashcroft noted recently, ‘an in-out referendum on the EU is not the answer to the question of how to win back potential UKIP defectors to the Tories’. UKIP is a single-issue party: its only other showcase policy – no to to gay marriage – obviously aims at peeling off disgruntled blue-heads, but only makes UKIP look (even more) bizarre, as if Stonewall were suddenly to interest itself in fishery quotas. Another UKIP peculiarity is that many of its supporters seem not to care much about its single issue anyway, perhaps because they’ve realised that not that much cash or power is at stake. UKIP boomed after November’s Rotherham by-election fostering rowlet, But in the longer term its support may be squashy, while insofar as its supporters worry less about Europe than about the economy and cuts to services, an EU referendum is unlikely to win them over to the Tories.
Moreover, what it’s a good idea to say, politically, depends not just on what’s said but who’s saying it. If the problem is the UK’s sclerotic political establishment, Cameron is not best placed to articulate it. In fact, there’s only one script that does the trick for Cameron: he wins in 2015, claws back sovereignty from the EU, before asking for, and winning, UK voters’ assent to the new deal. All other branches of the game-tree lead to catastrophe, either in the form of career-wrecking credibility loss or a UK exit from the EU – maybe, though probably not, without Scotland. And, even before getting over the 2015 election hurdle, Cameron runs the risk – as happened in 1997 – that branding Europe as the UK’s bête noire makes it harder for the Tories credibly to demonise Labour at the same time.
There is a democratic deficit in EU institutions, and as the 50th anniversary of Adenauer and de Gaulle’s Friendship Pact this week underlined, the EU is mainly a Franco-German show: a recent televised exchange between Helmut Schmidt and Giscard d’Estaing brought home how committed leading actors in the EU and its forerunners have been to a single Euro-state. But exit, as Cameron knows, is far from cost-free. After the US, the UK’s next seven leading export partners are in the EU. It will be interesting to see how many UK exporters to France and Germany will want to cheer on risking a return to tariff barriers. Meanwhile, though Angela Merkel has been polite about Cameron’s in/out, there have been suggestions that – as English nationalists sometimes mutter about Scottish independence – separation might be pre-empted by blackballing.
Cameron now finds himself in a similar position to John Major’s in 1995. Then too the Tory PM’s biggest problem was EU-hating backbenchers ready to use the leverage conferred by the government’s thin majority. Major tried to lance the Eurosceptic boil by resigning as leader and winning the resulting leadership election; the boil, duly lanced, went septic. Cameron may win in 2015 if Labour sticks to its anti-referendum line but he is unlikely to win by much. Then, presumably, there will be a couple of years of bluster while he tries to wrest ‘concessions’ – probably in the area of employment ‘reform’ – from other European leaders supposedly cowed by the prospect of a UK exit. He would then have the job of passing off underwhelming clawbacks to an unimpressed electorate. As with the record of ‘convergence criteria’ for UK Euro entry under Tony Blair, the future is probably fudge.