The European Union and Cameron’s cynical move

30 Jan

By Chris Hansell

Photo by the World Economic Forum, via Flickr

Photo by the World Economic Forum, via Flickr

Four years is a long time in politics. Whether this passed through David Cameron’s mind before he made his speech in London last week is worth pondering.

By calling a referendum on EU membership Mr Cameron has solved some problems and created some new ones. Let’s set the scene.

In the short term the Prime Minister has put a lid on the fizzing disorder of Tory backbenchers and possibly the voter creep toward UKIP. The Telegraph excitedly observed that Mr Cameron’s EU speech has put both Labour and the Lib Dems in an awkward position.

But cementing his position with his party in the immediate future will mean the Prime Minister will have fewer cards to play later.

The chances of getting real concessions out of Europe are low. Harold Wilson, a more talented statesman than Cameron, was unable to get any substantial gains from the EEC during his renegotiation in the 1970s.

Euro sceptics, in and out of the Conservative party, will only be onside for a short time. Mr Cameron said awkwardly yesterday that ‘yes’ he will be supporting the campaign to keep Britain in. Nigel Farage is right to say ‘it is UKIP which will be leading the campaign for independence’.

Now, having laid everything out in a roundabout way, allow me to get to the reason I began writing this.

The Prime Minister’s decision is a political one. Cameron is pro Europe. Everybody with a nugget of sense knows it’s political. The newspapers have even printed this fact.

This depresses me more than anything else that came out of last Wednesday’s speech. The public get yet another reminder that politics is not about convictions but about party manoeuvring.

The Telegraph reports that several labour figures think ‘Mr Cameron’s move will ultimately force the (Labour) party’s hand to offer a vote’ without pointing out the political cynicism of such a strategy.

The Guardian even published a piece by Tony Blair’s former chief of staff Jonathan Powell outlining why Cameron’s strategy was flawed. Mr Powell is quite right in asserting that as a result of the speech the Prime Minister has wound up ‘snookering himself’. But I would add to this another flaw: decisions this big should not be made for party-political advantage. This is not what a democracy looks like.

As demagogues go Cameron and the class of 2013 do not come across as especially talented at politicking. Comparisons between Cameron and Harold Wilson found their way into almost every newspaper on Thursday, but I have already touched on the problem with this comparison. Wilson was a far more gifted tactician than our Prime Minister.

In terms of general election victories Wilson outscores Cameron four to none. As Peter Oborne details Wilson demonstrated astute political judgement in 1974 to keep Britain in Europe. Cameron on the other hand has yet to show this kind of skill at any point since he became Tory leader in 2005.

With U-turns abound (pasty tax anyone?) and rhetoric designed more to damage political opponents than to explain sincere policy today’s politicians are pretender statesmen.

In the words of the menacing Malcolm Tucker our political class ‘has given up on morality’. They aim for popularity alone, which they achieve through image rather than substance.

The Daily Mail’s Angela Epstein described Cameron’s speech on Question TIme as ‘the first clang of the bell that says the election campaign starts now’.

Today’s politicians are certainly in an election campaign right now but it is not one that has only just begun. In 2013 politics is one long campaign for re-election, and it has drained the people we elect of all substance. All that is left is a thirst to stay in power.

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