by Kevin Meagher
So was it really worth the wait? There’s been less speculation about the second coming than there has about David Cameron’s Europe speech over the last month.
To be fair it was carefully crafted and fluently delivered. And half of it could have been said by any mainstream Labour or Lib Dem politician. Yes, the EU needs reform and must focus on competitiveness and address the democratic deficit. Amen to that. shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander was quick to point out as much on his tour around the broadcast studios this morning, calling, specifically for reform of the common agricultural policy and EU budget.
And three quarters of Cameron’s speech could have been delivered by Iain Duncan-Smith, Michael Howard or William Hague. There was not much new, with heavy emphasis on John Major’s call, two decades ago, for “variable geometry” in reshaping the EU. So a trip down memory lane and a restatement of that peculiarly Toryish view of Europe with the promise of a renegotiation and referendum bolted on?
But, of course, there’s a baser consideration about today. It’s about giving Cameron political cover up to and through the 2015 election, addressing internal Tory antagonisms about Europe and giving his troops something to deflect UKIP’s steady advance. One hour of verbiage and weeks of speculation to produce a line to take.
Any prospect of renegotiation is just that – a prospect. Cameron had no explanation of whether, if unsuccessful, he would then, logically, back a no campaign. His hope is that a referendum puts a demarcation between “responsible” Euro-sceptics and the more full-bloodied variety who want a referendum not on the outcome of any renegotiation, but from first principle. Next year’s elections to the European Parliament – always used as a protest vote – may see Cameron’s hope dashed if UKIP’s support surges. As Nigel Farage puts it today, “the genie is out of the bottle” about now leaving the EU.
How will Labour and the Lib Dems respond? Begrudgingly, but both have been flirting with an in/out referendum, so it’s not a big jump to sign up too. Labour’s line about a referendum being a distraction and sending out the wrong signal to business will eventually accede to the hard politics of today; with Labour accepting a referendum but arguing strongly for Britain’s role in Europe – something the Tories simply will not do. And despite the bluster, the British public will vote for the devil it knows, as it did in 1975.
If all parties are, to varying degrees, on board it denudes Cameron of an important point of difference. However it does something else too. It allows Labour to speak not only for workers set to lose their protections under the social chapter – one of the age-old Tory demands for repatriated powers – but to speak for an anxious business lobby too.
The psychodrama about Britain’s place in Europe has just cranked up another notch but this might provide a practical example of Labour’s claim to the one nation mantle.
Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut