by Adam Richards
A former colleague, now a journalist, took to tweeting an exasperated message because his newsroom hadn’t picked up on the political [in]significance of the EU debate that took place last night. Nor did the BBC it seems, who took nearly an hour to feature the story on their site, at the bottom of the newsfeed.
With the government moving the debate forward so that David Cameron and William Hague could [not] attend it seemed to appear out of nowhere. The newspapers covered the story over the weekend and the majority of pundits, from the left and right, focussed their ire towards the Conservatives, with only a couple foolishly believing Cameron would come out of it strengthened. Today’s media coverage seems to confirm this. In a flash, Cameron has suffered an embarrassing erosion of his leadership.
When Tories debate Europe time goes backward. It is a common mistake to believe the digital clock in the chamber represents time; it is the number of Conservative voters jumping ship. As sure as tick follows tock, Tory followed Tory and story followed story. There aren’t many more satisfying things than watching Jacob Rees-Mogg on telly – he is after all a walking talking party political broadcast for Labour. There were wry smiles allround when his honourable colleague intervened and he was granted a further 60 seconds on the floor. 60 seconds, 60 votes, thank you very much, sir.
There were some delicious ironies of course. The same conservative MPs who fought the no to AV campaign on a cost basis arguing for a referendum was my particular favourite. For a Labour-supporting political anorak the whole affair seemed too good to be true. The Conservative party’s capacity to self-implode over Europe is impressively entertaining and could warrant a whole blog to itself. Luckily Tim Montgomerie has very kindly written one for us, in the Guardian no less.
Make no mistake, Cameron is having a bad couple of weeks. President Sarkozy’s slap-down only added to the erosion of his status last night. Combined with disastrous employment and inflation figures, as well as Liam Fox’s resignation, Ed has had plenty of ammunition at PMQs where he has put together back-to-back wins. On the back of a reshuffle, the launch of the 5-point plan and some successes on issues that resonate with the public, the party quite rightly has their tail up. Importantly though, in the last couple of weeks, Labour seem to be winning the argument on the economy.
And it is the economy that matters. There have been a number of polls measuring the public response to Europe, all including some dauntingly high numbers. Yes, 45% of people think that Britain’s membership of the EU is a bad thing. Yes 50% think membership has had a negative effect on the UK but only 4% of people identified it as the most important issue facing Britain. As a single issue it is largely irrelevant to winning in 2015. Labour need to keep their eyes on the prize.
David Cameron’s torrid couple of weeks are largely of his own making. Yesterday’s events were a long overdue punishment for being too useless to win a majority against Gordon Brown. Labour, it seems, without doing very much have made the Tories look rather silly. Whether it is intentional or not is up for question.
There has been an absence of any sort of foreign policy over the last year and it was notably absent during Ed’s conference speech. Strategically this is a good thing. Labour’s foreign policy is a contentious issue for the party and public and we are right to brush it under the rug, for the moment. Labour had no choice, politically or ethically, to bind themselves to the government over Libya. And like it or not, an Eton and Oxford education puts you in a favourable position to strut about on foreign soil. Cameron easily beats Ed in any statesman competition and Labour are right to remove any party political comparison in this area.
So what should we do? Well, enjoy the moment. It isn’t going to come around again anytime soon. Up to this point Labour have failed to exploit the government’s biggest weaknesses: the coalition as well as internal Conservative party relations. This is unlikely to change. There isn’t a better political or policy area than Europe to exploit this, but a referendum is clearly not forthcoming so the short-term tactic should clearly relate the issue to any wider strategy.
Europe may well prove Cameron’s downfall but the economy is what matters.