Why Cameron is now the ‘Yes to the EU’ campaign’s best hope

cameron-europeThere are two very good reasons David Cameron didn’t want the Tories endlessly to bang on about Europe. First, because most of the public just aren’t that interested. Secondly, because the Tories are irreconcilably split on the issue and not even a referendum will settle matters.

That’s why for seven years as Tory leader Cameron tried to quell discussion, and then when that failed sought to steer a mid-course with gestures of Euroscepticism, such as December 2011’s faux-veto. In the end, he couldn’t hold out any longer. The in/out EU referendum is the price he’s paid for his failure to win the 2010 election outright; this is the Tory right’s payback.

Yesterday’s speech and its promise of an in/out EU referendum was Cameron’s attempt to turn this weakness into a strength. On its own terms, it’s worked. Tory MPs and the right-wing press are united in their praise of him. They know it won’t last. It can’t. Fundamentally, David Cameron wants to keep the UK in the EU — or at least ensure he’s not the Prime Minister who takes the UK out of the EU, which amounts to pretty much the same thing — while a sizeable and growing minority of Tories want out and beggar the consequences.

Clegg and Miliband’s Hobson’s Choice

But ‘The Speech’ was enough to deflect right-wing attacks away from their leader and towards the Lib Dems and Labour. Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband are now both under pressure to match David Cameron’s pledge, and commit themselves to giving the people a say on Europe. Their response is essentially the same (though Clegg’s articulated it far more adeptly, as we saw yesterday): We think a referendum is a complete distraction. He can bang on about Europe all he wants. I’m going to keep my focus 100% on the economy.

The easiest thing both could do right now is concede the ground to Cameron. It would draw the sting from the issue and Tories might turn in on themselves once again. When politicians reject the easy option, sensible people ask why.

Miliband, in particular, has every reason not to get dragged into a fight which will be held on the Tory right’s ground. He could be Prime Minister in a little over two years’ time. He will inherit a weak economy, growing debt, years of austerity ahead, and impossible demands from the trade unions and his own party. Why add needless strife abroad to that list?

There will be a bigger tactical worry. If Labour commits to an in/out referendum now and if the party wins in 2015, it will be down to Miliband to negotiate the new terms. By that time, Cameron will be gone and the Tories will be led by someone yet more Eurosceptic. Chances are that — even if Miliband succeeded in such talks beyond even Cameron’s current wildest dreams — a post-2015 Tory party will take the opportunity to campaign against a Miliband-led ‘Yes’, arguing that he’s failed to win the repatriation of powers that would make continuing British membership acceptable. If the Tories (and the press) were to campaign for a ‘No’, the chances of the UK staying in Europe are much more finely balanced. If he lost the referendum, Miliband’s premiership might be over before it’s even begun.

Why ‘wait and see’ won’t work. Probably.

Under the circumstances, Miliband’s decision not to leap on board Cameron’s in/out bandwagon is entirely understandable. It may not be enough to save him, though.

First, he’ll have to navigate the next two years of being asked constantly, ‘Why won’t you let the British people have a say?’ Even though most of the British people aren’t all that fussed about the issue, appearing not to trust them to make the choice isn’t a good look for an opposition leader. Secondly, Cameron’s commitment to re-negotiation puts him on the front foot: unlike Miliband he won’t be waiting around passively for the next treaty to come along to argue for British interests. And thirdly, if there is to be another treaty in the next 5 years (and the Eurozone turmoil makes that more likely than not) Miliband will still have to let the public decide anyway, having now accepted the Coalition’s referendum lock.

This scenario leads to only one logical, if at-first-sight perverse, conclusion for those of us who want to see the UK remain in the European Union: to wish David Cameron every success in his negotiations with his 26 fellow European leaders. Quite simply, he’s the political leader who’s best placed to win an in/out referendum for the ‘Yes’ campaign.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.

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27 Comments

  • Peter Hayes 24th Jan '13 - 5:14pm

    But what happens in the mean time, who would invest in UK if there is a risk of out. Honda are making 800 redundant at Swindon because of the drop in European demand, when demand recovers perhaps they might expand production in Belgium instead, admittedly Belgium is only motor cycles now so it might be preferable to move to Eastern Europe as VW has done.

  • Keith Browning 24th Jan '13 - 5:59pm

    I have absolutely no idea what Britain has to gain from leaving Europe. I have not seen one cogent explanation, apart from the ‘we hate Jonny Foreigner’ diatribe, which seems to be the main point of attack. made by the Express and Cameron’s Right Wing mates. I am more than a little bemused.

    Why then would either the LDs or Labour go anywhere near a renegotiation or a referendum – we are all in this together – yes 27 of us – and the only way is up…!!

    Lets see some leadership from all those that believe the Dunkirk spirit should be left behind in the history books, not facing a re-run before the decade is out.

  • I have said similar things on an earlier thread, but falling into Cameron’s pitfall trap would be idiotic and disastrous.

    Basically, a commitment for a referendum by November 2017 is liable to be a much worse millstone than the tuition fee mistake. All sorts of things can happen that call for an EU response, in the intervening time within and outside the EU concerning international trade, intellectual property rights, military structures, nuclear proliferation, financial systems, the list could go on, but any could make a mockery of an In/Out debate. A new EU treaty could be in discussion at this time, that might justify claims for another referendum a couple of years furhter on. Meanwhile the recession and a programme of cutbacks is now projected to continue to 2017 and this could be extended, leaving the government of the day highly unpopular, just right for a mid term kicking.

    A commitment to a referendum might have some raison d’être if there was any clarity about the substance of the so called renegotiation. What might it be about? Longer hours for doctors and lorry drivers? Is that supposed to be what it takes to get the nod amongst the Tories?

    Cameron is attempting to rope other parties into his campaign to stitch together the ripped rags of the Conservative party. Why should any other party make this kind of time specific pledge, when it is blatant that this may well be a promise that could be totally impractical to sustain?

    There is a clear line on a possible future referendum, relating to a significant movement of powers, now underpinned by legislation, I am uneasy about it, but why change for something worse?

  • Richard Dean 24th Jan '13 - 8:00pm

    For 2015, why not:

    Tory: we offer In./Out on Europe
    LibDem: we offer In/Out on Euro AND In./Out in Europe
    Labour: we offer nothing, sorry

    ? :-)

  • David Pollard 24th Jan '13 - 8:02pm

    I’m disappointed that LibDems are falling for the line put out by the media. What seems to be to be clear are:-
    1. We supported the legislation to have a referendum if there is a treaty proposal to transfer more powers to the EU.
    2. Cameron said in his speech that what he was proposing ‘was the opposite of turning our backs on Europe’ There has to be some change in the structure of the EU because of changes in the Eurozone to make the Euro more stable. Also, Cameron is right that the EU should seriously consider measures to become more competitive in the world.

    What is to disagree with any of this? Promising yet another referendum is destablising, but for the rest Cameron should be supported.

    LibDems should remind people of the existing referendum legislation and support Cameron in his re-negotiation.

  • David Cameron has to win the general election first and that looks unlikely, This stuff is mostly about a leader with a hostile backbench and a belief tat UKIP are more popular than they are.

  • Cameron isn’t offering in/out. He’s offering partly out/totally out. The only hope is that Miliband has the wit to stick to his no referendum line and then Cameron will be utterly stuffed at the next election.

    What Cameron has also, I very much hope, done, is killed off any chance of coalition with the LibDems after the next election.

  • http://www.jonworth.eu/the-uk-eu-argument-is-a-proxy-for-the-vital-debate-about-the-uks-economic-geopolitical-and-democratic-future/

    I find the arguments put forward in Jon Worth’s article persuasive and believe that as Lib-Dems we should be leading on it. Charles F Kettering summarised the situation in two crisp aphorisms:
    “A problem well stated is a problem half solved” and ““We should all be concerned about the future because we will have to live the rest of our lives there.”
    Whilst H L Menken encapsulates the Tory position
    “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”

  • Dave Simpson 25th Jan '13 - 9:52am

    @Keith
    The ‘reason’ that right-wing Tories want to leave the EU is largely the Union’s protection of workers’ rights – the Social Chapter etc.
    On wonders whether their enthusiasm would undergo a 180 degree change in direction if the EU was dominated by extreme right-wing parties and legislation which did away with these rights and gave big business an entirely free hand.

  • Bill le Breton 25th Jan '13 - 10:12am

    Peter you are absolutely right. But once again we appear to be on the wrong foot … illustrating tactical naivety. We should have launched a campaign for a speedy IN/OUT a year ago … “to end the damaging uncertainty”. A tactic that would have rallied the party on a fundamental principle and smashed our rivals. But now we are stuck fast advocating a subtle line that gives us no favours short or medium term.

  • Keith Browning 25th Jan '13 - 10:17am

    Don’t panic – must be the watchword for the pro-Europeans. Time passes and in four years many of those hardened, right wingers will no longer be with us. The demographics of voting will have moved on. Last nights Times poll suggests that there is a large tranche of unmovable, anti-Europeans. The target group for any pro-Europe campaign must therefore be those approaching the age to take part in the voting process and those with a free and open mind. (is there anyone out there… he cried).

    Overall, I have a smell of Murdoch lingering in the background – a man who isn’t a great supporter of Europe…!! Is he still pulling the strings behind the scenes?

    and thank you Dave Thompson – I’d totally forgotten abou the Social Chapter – which reminds me, I must re-read a few of Charles Dickens novels, to get me up to speed with current Tory thinking.

  • Just to add an updated version of what I have posted on Stephen’s earlier thread, we first have to make some judgements about Cameron’s stance and the motivation behind it. I agree with Stephen that he does firmly want UK within the EU but obviously also wants to stop UKIP plus his own persistent europhobes from damaging his electoral chances. His strategy is to talk tough but end up putting to the people the best deal he can secure. Even if many Tories (disappointed withn the paucity of the “reforms” ) vote against he will win the referendum with Labour and Lib Dem support.. Given that some sort of two tier arrangement is certain to be concluded with the Eurozone being forced into greater harmonisation, Cameron will seek to lead the non-Euro group. He is bound to have some degree of success provided he plays more for measures of general benefit to this group rather than UK cherry-picking and exceptionalism. In this regard I thought his reply to the final question in Wednesday’s PMQs was significant –

    “Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): Pitt the Younger said that ‘Europe is not to be saved by any single man’,and then correctly went on to predict that England would ‘save Europe by her example.’ I believe that my right hon. Friend is in danger of contradicting Pitt, because his example today and his exertions over the next four years stand the best possible chance of rescuing the European Union for both Europe and Britain.

    “The Prime Minister: I thank my hon. Friend for what he says. He makes an important point, which is that Britain’s agenda is not one of simply saying, ‘This is what Britain wants and if we don’t get it we will leave’, it is an agenda that is good for the whole of the European Union. We face a massive competitiveness challenge from the rising countries of the south and the east, and we must accept that Europe at the moment is not working properly—it is adding to business costs, adding to regulation, and we need to change that not just for our sake but for that of those right across the European Union.”

    As Nick Clegg says the real problem is the danger of major investment decisions going against UK during these interim years because we do not look like a sound and lasting EU base. Is there a case for the LIb Dems to co-operate in permitting the “re-negotiation” to begin now (or as soon as a greater level of stability has been achieved within the eurozone) rather than waiting for the end of this parliament? That would help (with Lib Dem involvement) to ensure that the emphasis was indeed on measures of wider benefit rather than merely narrow UK interests.

    The chance for the Lib Dems to seek a referendum before any “re-negotiation” is gone.

    It is all a dangerous game. Personally I think the UK should feel very lucky to be able to maintain all the benefits of EU membership without being forced to join the Euro.

  • “Steven’s ‘he could be PM in a little over 2yrs’ really is rose coloured spectacles stuff”

    I don’t see how a Liberal Democrat predicting a Labour win would be considered “rose-coloured”; it’s not like it’s the Lib Dem’s universally preferred outcome. However, the rest of the analysis is fantastic; certainly Labour are not going to jettison their leader while they are ahead in the polls; the Conservatives are not going to toss Cameron overboard while he is still Prime Minister; and the next Prime Minister is either going to be the Labour leader or the Conservative leader. Obviously, some unforeseen event could change political calculations, but if elections were held today, Ed Miliband would be Prime Minister. That’s not wishful thinking; that’s a fact. If Liberal Democrats don’t like that version of the future, they have to work to change it.

    As for the referendum, it seems to me that the UK would be in Europe was decided by referendum back in 1973. I don’t see what has changed that requires a second referendum. On the whole, referenda seem not so much a surrender of power to “the people” as an abdication of responsibility on the part of Parliament. It is MPs’ duty to represent the people and to be held accountable for their representation. Avoiding politically difficult choices by pushing the decision onto “the people” (who are actually only that fraction who can be bothered to get out of bed to vote, quite possibly even less representative of the people as a whole than Parliament) is nothing less than a flight from the battlefield.

  • David Allen 25th Jan '13 - 5:12pm

    So, here we have suggested a variety of possible strategies, mostly aiming by one means or another to safeguard our position in Europe. What nobody has yet suggested is an “Anything you say, Daddy” strategy. Until, that is, Nick Clegg weighed in. From the Guardian:

    “The Conservative policy of holding a referendum on staying in or quitting the European Union would not necessarily prevent the Liberal Democrats forming another coalition with them after the next general election, Nick Clegg has indicated. The Lib Dem leader’s acceptance of a referendum as part of a future governing deal could be crucial to forming a coalition”

    So, bye bye to any chances of rapprochement with Labour. Bye bye to the option of telling the electorate, when in 2015 Europe and the Euro are still in turmoil, that now is not the time for a referendum, and that a vote for the Lib Dems will be a vote to stop Cameron doing anything so disastrous for the national economy. Bye bye, therefore, to what might (depending on the financial situation) be a very appealing policy line indeed.

    Instead, hello to the recognition (did I say this before somewhere?) that Clegg will do anything to perpetuate a permanent right-wing hegemony by the Conservative – Lib Dem Alliance. Including, it seems, selling our future in Europe down the river.

  • James Sandbach 25th Jan '13 - 5:45pm

    If David Cameron’s the answer – then the problem’s far worse than I thought…!

    Cameron’s unreasonable demands to opt out of EU social protections and financial regulations are unlikely to go anywhere – that only leaves one route open to him: an EU exit (his referendum campaign is ‘Europe a la carte’ or ‘no Europe at all’..)

  • Paul McKeown 25th Jan '13 - 7:27pm

    @judy b

    “1. We needn’t have bothered with an AV referendum at all.”

    Not true. It wasn’t a manifesto commitment in 2010 by either governing party, so the voting public had not been consulted on this. A referendum was necessary to obtain democratic consent.

    “2. Somehow the European Economic Community has not engaged in ever-closer-union throughout the years that saw it tranform first to the European Community, and then the European Union, to the Eurozone, and now to the nascent political union necessary to see the Eurozone survive.”

    “Ever closer union” was written in the preamble to the Treaty of Rome. The British electorate got what it voted for in the 1975 referendum. So, no, there is no constitutional reason to refer the matter again to the electorate. Cameron’s “plebishite” is a political requirement for the internal coherence of the Conservative Party. It is not required to correct an omission of democratic oversight.

  • Paul McKeown 25th Jan '13 - 11:50pm

    @judy b

    “Utter rhubard …”

    If that is your attitude, then I suppose that you could be sold absolutely *anything*. Caveat emptor – if you vote on a treaty you should read it, just as you would read the terms for a loan agreement before reading it. The terms were in the Treaty of Rome, carte blanche.

    “scots”

    The reasons for the independence referendum are also political, rather than a constitutional requirement. There is a very clear majority against independence in Scotland, so if the constitutional logic that Theresa Villiers applied to the recent calls for a border poll in Northern Ireland (no apparent majority in favour of a constitutional change) were applied to the question of Scottish independence, there would have been no referendum called. Alex Salmond has simply been hoist on his own petard. He will lose, the hope of the unionist parties is they will make him look a fool in the process. At least, however, there has never been a referendum in Scotland on independence. The issue with Europe is different – it was clearly settled in 1975 – within the lifetime of most of the British electorate.

  • Paul McKeown says :
    “The issue with Europe is different – it was clearly settled in 1975 – within the lifetime of most of the British electorate.”
    Nick Clegg says :
    “It’s time we pulled out the thorn and healed the wound, time for a debate politicians have been too cowardly to hold for 30 years – time for a referendum on the big question. Do we want to be in or out? Nobody in Britain under the age of 51 has ever been asked that simple question.”
    Who to believe?

  • Paul McKeown 26th Jan '13 - 3:37pm

    @john dunn

    Re: Nick Clegg

    Sounds like the sort of bull a politician comes out with when in opposition. Say something to grab a headline, cross fingers and forget about. Bluster on being reminded about it when later inconvenient. Is that a sufficient explanation?

  • Old Codger Chris 26th Jan '13 - 9:40pm

    It’s naive to complain that an EU referendum is only promised for political reasons. Why else would a referendum on anything be promised?

    It can’t be avoided as we’ve sleepwalked into the position that any party denying a referendum is ignoring democracy. So surely it should be held a.s.a.p. after Cameron’s re-negotiation attempt, whatever the result of this. As others have said, delaying it till after the next election can only deter investment in the meantime. I don’t see why a NO vote is any less likely after the election than before it.

    If the vote is “no” it should solve our local population problem. The businesses heading for the exit will want to take at least some of their UK employees with them. For everyone else – Australia welcomes folk with certain skills………

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