We need to talk about Europe.
With Labour and the Tories deadlocked in the polls and Britain on course for a hung parliament, The Spectator asks an interesting question: in an effort to break the deadlock, why won’t David Cameron and the Conservative Party start “banging on about Europe”?
From The Speccie’s leading article:
It is hardly as if the issue of an in-out referendum has been neutralised. David Cameron, in committing himself to such a poll, seemed to be in a strong position over Ed Miliband, who has declined all pressure to follow suit. Cameron can justifiably say to anti-Europeans that a vote for him is the only way to ensure that the country has a chance to reject EU membership. For EU supporters, he is offering the chance to settle the matter of Britain’s membership for a generation to come. And for sceptics in the middle who want to be part of the EU, but a reformed one, he is promising renegotiation of Britain’s terms.
Ed Miliband’s position, by contrast, is simply one of denying the people a say on an issue which divides the country — on the basis that voters cannot be trusted with such questions. It is entirely believable, should Labour come to some sort of pact with the SNP after the election, that we will end up having two referendums on the subject of Scottish independence, with the EU question remaining unresolved. Even the pro-EU Greens want an in-out referendum on the — for them, unusually solid — grounds that the issue of Britain’s membership will be an issue until it is seen to have renewed democratic legitimacy.
The Spectator concludes:
David Cameron ought to be turning European turmoil to his electoral advantage. With Ukip at around 13 per cent, he would win a strong Conservative majority if only he could persuade a quarter of Ukip’s potential voters over to his side. Contrary to talk about the left being in advance, the conservative parties (the Tories plus Ukip) between them are registering a substantially bigger slice of the vote than in 2010.
But this is where the Spectator’s analysis falls down – the misplaced assumption that if only David Cameron talks more naturally about his personal beliefs and the Conservative Party’s official policy on the European Union, hordes of recently defected UKIP voters would return to the Tory fold.
People don’t generally support UKIP just because they want Britain to go through the democratic exercise of holding a referendum on our membership of the EU, letting the chips fall where they may. They support UKIP because of all Britain’s non-extremist political parties, Nigel Farage’s gang is the only one that unequivocally disagrees with remaining in the European Union under more or less any circumstances. Gaining popular consent may be great, but the goal is Brexit – and UKIP are the only party who are committed to that end.
From this perspective, David Cameron’s pitch to the electorate is little better than Ed Miliband’s – both say that they want to get the “best deal” for Britain in Europe (whatever that may be), but when push comes to shove, neither of them believe the EU to be a fundamentally flawed, undemocratic or threatening to British interests. If they did, we wouldn’t be talking about a referendum, Britain would secede tomorrow.
Why would UKIP’s growing ranks of supporters vote Conservative when they know that they will get a Prime Minister and government that may honour their promise to hold a referendum, but then in all likelihood campaign for Britain to remain part of the EU after the largely cosmetic “renegotiations” are complete? More to the point, why would a rational voter vote for wishy-washy feigned euroscepticism when there is another party (UKIP) and another leader (Nigel Farage) who still trusts the British people to have their say, but is actively committed to campaigning for Brexit?
UKIP supporters have generally made up their minds that the EU – with its growth-sapping regulation, control-freakish infringement on national sovereignty and persistent undermining of the nation state through common security and borders policies – is a bad thing. They may understand that the rest of the country needs a little more time to educate itself and arrive at the same conclusion, but they do not expect the party they vote for on 7 May to have to go through the same tortuous process. Ukippers want out, as soon as possible, because they believe that this would be best for the country – the clue comes in large letters on the front page of their manifesto, titled “Believe in Britain”.
So to answer the Spectator’s original question, there is a very good reason why David Cameron has not spent – and will not spend – more time in this election campaign “banging on about Europe”. True eurosceptics, especially the ones who have made the leap to UKIP, know that David Cameron’s offering of a referendum is a move intended only to placate his party’s right wing, not a promise borne of a personal desire to free Britain from the EU. Therefore, every day that David Cameron spends talking about Europe is another day he alienates the Europhiles and the politically indifferent, while winning back only a small fraction of the UKIP vote.
You can observe the deafening silence from the Conservative Party on Europe and admire David Cameron’s political radar and message discipline, or you can despair that the Prime Minister simply doesn’t see Britain’s emancipation from the European Union machine as a cause worth fighting and risking political office for. But either way, it’s no accident that the EU is the non-issue of the 2015 general election campaign.