by Malcolm Clarke
There cannot possibly be a more endearing sight for the left of centre politician than the sight of Tory MPs rabidly attacking one another over the issue of Europe, their reaction to the word ‘Europe’ as predictable as the salivating dogs trained by Pavlov’s bell.
But I do not believe that the issue of Europe is solely about UKIP, although they have seen big gains as a result of this issue. Europe severs the right and UKIP could have expected better results having mopped up floating Tory voters who are Euro-sceptic, the standard protest voters who used to vote Lib Dem and also the mid-term ‘we hate politics’ voters who look to inflict damage on the main parties.
If you consider the positive climate for UKIP gains given the heightened public consciousness on issues surrounding EU membership, getting 25% of the vote is underwhelming and I question the extent of the success that the media are heralding for UKIP. They have filled a void in protest politics, nothing more. That is not to say their position will not develop in time to a more established position, but as we saw in Scotland two days ago, there is no Cleggmania-like wave for Nigel Farage at present.
At Westminster, the Tories are treading familiar ground with a virile battle raging over the issue of Europe once again. The Tories just cannot resist a good row over Europe but I believe they should be dealing with the difficult domestic situation we face like the ever-increasing cuts to public services, the ideological attack on councils and the flat-lining economy. They have reverted to type and it’s the same old Tories. They showed it over the NHS and they are showing it over Europe.
Many of their ills are self-inflicted by a strategic error by David Cameron. By declaring that he will defer an in-out referendum until after the next general election and after a renegotiation on our terms of membership within the European Union, he walked headlong into three big problems.
Firstly, whilst in opposition Cameron gave a ‘cast-iron guarantee’ for an in-out referendum. Now he has gone back on his word and people have noticed, particularly those in his own party who were previously appeased by this pledge. Cameron now faces distrust to the extent that a private members bill has been tabled by Conservative MP for Stockton South, James Wharton, to ensure the matter is cast out in binding legislation. As no party can legislate to bind their successors, Cameron is dangling a carrot to the electorate and to his disparate MPs saying, ‘stick with me and get your referendum’. Unfortunately for Dave, they electorate may well kick him out of Number 10 for not delivering an in-out referendum now.
Cameron’s second problem is that this furore has handed all mainstream parties a headache in dealing with the rise of UKIP. I have explained above why I would argue their rise is not simply down to a massive surge of nationalism but Farage has a platform now to express his clear views. Farage gives the same interview time after time on television and we have to accept that a decent proportion of the public are listening. Border control is a regular issue which is raised on the doorstep, as is the £50 million per day membership fee for being an EU member and you will not find many people who would say they are happy that Brussels has rising influence over our lawmaking.
These issues do strike a chord with the electorate who note the cuts to our public services, wage freezes but rising inflation and more and more competition for decreasing numbers of jobs. The public will support membership of the EU but only it is clearly demonstrated in a proper debate why it would be significantly worse for us not being in it. We need to give them the facts and not defer the issue, this only hands an open goal to the campaign for us leaving the debate and if we sit back too long it could be over before we start. At the moment the ‘no’ argument is controlling the debate, which must be a concern to anyone who wants to remain in the EU.
Cameron’s third problem is that by promising to have an in-out referendum on a renegotiated relationship with Europe, Cameron has chosen not to disclose the terms he will be seeking to achieve within this new relationship. This leads to uncertainty from both the public and his fellow MPs, who are particularly sensitive on all things Europe. I am not even sure he knows what he is aiming for at the present time. Certainly the Tory MPs are unsure what is going on and the debate rages on with the press delighting in it without an end in sight. It is front page news at the moment and the distrust and in-fighting is exactly what politics does not want when the institution needs to reengage with a suspicious general public.
Both the press and euro-sceptic Tories are sensing weakness and the wolves are circling around the beleaguered PM. Cameron has real problems to deal with over Europe. Labour must seize the moment so the public do not put their trust in UKIP as the only party offering a clear position of conviction. It is a test for the Labour front bench to show some leadership and offer the real alternative to the Con-Dems.