Tuesday, February 23, 2016 

Give me irrelevance, or give me death.

Appearances, as we know, can often be deceiving.  If you were to judge me purely by this blog, you would no doubt conclude I'm something of a politics obsessive.  And you'd be right.  But it doesn't run my life.  Part of the reason I've always resisted joining any social network is I know it would just lead to my spending even more time thinking and spouting off on the subject.  This might sound counter-intuitive, but if there's one thing the world desperately needs less of, as well as lawyers, it's politics.  There's a very good reason why most ordinary, sensible people eschew getting involved, and it's not just because they're not interested or don't have the time to spare to do so: it's often terminally dull and the same arguments occur over and over again.  The reward is minuscule in comparison to the amount of work you have to put in to get any real enjoyment out.

You can though understand why the most obsessed believe that their heroes, or representatives must involve themselves in every issue or campaign going, because otherwise why else should they do so themselves?  This isn't helped by how what was once rare has become so commonplace: debates between political candidates, if they happened at all, were usually one-off affairs.  Now, especially when it comes to choosing a party leader or a party presidential nominee, they happen practically every week.  Yes, this does to an extent weed out the also-rans, but it also has the effect of boring anyone who might have been paying attention and isn't an obsessive to death.  There are only so many times even the most anal of us can hear the same scripted lines without wanting to open up our arteries.  By the time the Democrat/Republican candidates finally face off towards the end of this year, the chances of even Trump if it is indeed he saying something original will be lower than Jeb Bush's ego.

Owen Jones then worries that Labour "risks becoming irrelevant in the [EU] referendum".  He says this despite writing of how Jeremy Corbyn "is in politics to change things, and voters know – if nothing else – that he is not there to defend the status quo or the establishment".  Jones attempts to avoid the contradiction of this anti-establishment figure arguing for the establishment position by saying that instead Corbyn should "make his own separate case", calling for a vote to stay in the EU "as a first step to the reform it so desperately needs".

It isn't clear exactly how this will work.  Most Labour supporters are it seems in favour of staying in, and yet how exactly will helping David Cameron to a stonking great victory help the party win the next election?  How will effectively signing up to Cameron's renegotiation, as a remain vote will clearly be taken as, be the first step to the reform the EU so desperately needs, especially when it will be the Conservatives in power for at least another three years?  Failing a Scottish "neverrendum" feeling taking hold, it's apparent this is going to be taken as the UK's settlement in Europe for at least a good few years.

Put it like this: irrelevance is by far the preferable position, if not for Labour, then definitely for Corbyn.  We all know he doesn't believe in the EU.  He said he voted for coming out of the Common Market in 1975, as you'd expect, and if you voted out then you have to go through a spectacular routine of verbal gymnastics to convincingly explain why you'd possibly vote to remain now.  Getting vigorously involved in a campaign to remain, even purely on a Labour platform, makes absolutely no sense.  Staying in the background and letting everyone else get on with it is by far the better bet.

Especially when it seems as though all involved are determined to send the public to sleep.  Quite why there needs to be three BBC debates, not including any held by the other broadcasters quite escapes me, especially when only one is likely to be attended by Cameron.  The right-wing press does of course regard this as the most important vote in the history of this septic isle, so naturally the BBC has to go one better, and yet Wembley Arena?  Build it and everyone other than the obsessives will find an excuse to switch the channel.  Irrelevance has never been such an attractive proposition.

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Monday, February 22, 2016 

Let them all kill each other.

Imagine, if you can, just what a vote to leave the European Union on June the 23rd would mean.  Not to us as a country, as that's all too easy, but instead to the tabloid press.  How on earth would they cope with their number one bogeyman vanquished?  Their favourite target for unvarnished often irrational hate, suddenly gone, and with no one else to blame but ourselves for just how awful everything is.  Then, you quickly realise, it wouldn't make a damn bit of difference.  Instead their fire would quickly be turned on the barmy bureaucrats tasked with negotiating our exit, then the self-same people who would be negotiating our re-entry into the free market.  Once all that was over, or rather before then, the bile would just turn ever further inward: the NHS, the BBC, the left, students, the poors, Scotland, all would get it in the neck more frequently than ever.

For the obvious irony is that for all the occasions the left or supporters of the EU are accused of lacking patriotism, not being proud enough of England, of putting the country down, for which see last week's response to Emma Thompson describing our glorious nation as a "tiny little cloud-bolted, rainy corner of sort-of Europe, a cake-filled, misery-laden, grey old island", it tends to be the right, the Conservatives, UKIP especially that have the biggest problem with the country as it is.  The Mail, if not so much the Sun, would normally nod sagely and agree with most of Thompson's sentiments, so long as they were shorn of her conclusion as to that's why we should remain in the EU.  The shouting down of Thompson pretty much amounted to yes, everything you say is true, but it's our cloud-bolted, misery-laden, grey old island, you stuck-up, out of touch, elitist, snooty luvvie.  You could if you wished compare how Thompson was told to "shut her cakehole" for speaking out, as compared to how Michael Caine was treated for saying it was time we left, but that would be too easy.

If only there was so much as a touch of glamour to the mechanical, hollow, shallow, fatuous process of phony differences and fantastical scaremongering we're about to experience for the next 4 months.  Calling politics showbusiness for ugly people has always seemed a cheap shot, but lord, how could anyone gaze on Saturday's get together of the cabinet members set to campaign for the exit and not think we have reached the absolute pinnacle of human evolution?  Not one but two bald men, chomping at the bit to fight over how many combs EU bureaucrats dancing on the head of a pin are allowed under directive 5291, the minister for Northern Ireland without an apparent care in the world for how her support for the exit would impact on her job, a supporter of the death penalty, the culture minister who barely conceals his contempt for the BBC, and an utterly deluded squit who somehow believes he could still be the next Tory leader and prime minister to the boot.

And these politicians, dear reader, are the sensible ones.  For over at the Grassroots Out party on Friday night came the unveiling of Vote Leave's secret weapon, Gorgeous George Galloway, who endeared himself to an audience made up of UKIP supporters, Tory right-wingers and the odd outright loon by declaring that he hated nationalism.  You couldn't help but feel for poor Kate Hoey, who had previously disassociated herself from all the other various out groupings on the basis they were controlled by individuals more intent on fighting each other than their opponents, only to find herself standing alongside not just Nigel Farage but a man who has alienated pretty much everyone he once associated with.  The pound-shop Donald Trump and the biggest twat in a hat since Jay Kay, together at last!

For the most ridiculous spectacle of all though you only need look at today's newspaper front pages.  Anyone would be mistaken for thinking that Boris was the second coming of Thatcher, rather than an utterly shameless opportunist who cares only for his lifelong goal of reaching Downing Street.  IDS and all the other monomaniacs you can at least respect for having always wanted to get us out; Gove and Boris are thinking solely of how this will position them, whether Cameron wins the referendum and leaves shortly after, or loses and has to resign as a result.  They believe they have nothing to lose: a remain vote might take the aura of being a winner/hugely popular away from Boris, but will gain him the respect he currently lacks with some at the Tory party constituency level.  If it's out, then he has the wind at his back and through his hair: what's to stop him from winning the leadership when his main opponents all wanted to stay?  Sure, it'll be a bit of a bugger needing to leave the EU when they must know in their heart of hearts there isn't going to be a better offer after a leave vote, more likely instead all the downsides of EU membership, open borders etc, with far less of the positives.  Who cares mind when you're the prime minister, and gaining more and more power is what your entire career has been about?

The only real joy to be had from what's ahead of us is, loathe personality politics or not, the Tories tearing chunks out of each other.  We got a taster from Cameron today in the Commons, who albeit in the language of the House, tore Johnson's arguments in his Torygraph piece to shreds.  When you have IDS talking the most absurdist nonsense about leaving the EU somehow incubating us against terrorist attacks, with Cameron and others repeatedly making clear how "secure" membership by contrast makes us, the assaults on their different positions are only going to increase.  As the attack lines become and more and more rehearsed, so in turn will the personal insults commence.  With the vast majority of the public bound to be bored senseless by the entire shebang already, all anyone's going to remember is just who called whom an idiot, who questioned whom's patriotism, who denounced whom as a Little Englander, and so forth.  All accompanied naturally by a media who seize on splits in Labour but will applaud them when they agree with the outers in the Tories.

But cry the usual voices, Europe is too important to be left to the Conservatives.  Well, it is and isn't.  There is absolutely nothing for Labour or the left as a whole to gain from joining forces with Cameron and pals, whether on platforms or off of them.  Cameron has from the beginning tried to paint his renegotiation as being the will of the British people, when it has had nothing to do with public sentiment, supportive of a referendum or not, and everything to do with the management of his party.  This is his bed, and he should lie in it.  Yes, if Cameron wins then he does have some sort of additional legacy, to have hopefully settled our place in Europe for a generation, but if he wants that epitaph when his party will forever loathe the EU and hold it against him then that's his choice.  If say it gets to June and it looks as though the Outers are in the lead, then perhaps it will be time to do something.  Otherwise, we should let Dave and his party bang heads together, watch their polling fall, and anticipate a change of leadership that will almost certainly result in someone less capable and less popular than Cameron taking over.  What's not to like?

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Tuesday, February 02, 2016 

Cameron's gamble with everyone else's chips.

David Cameron, Matthew d'Anconservative wrote only yesterday, is "like almost every Tory of his generation, a Eurosceptic to his fingertips".  This Eurosceptic to his fingertips, a leader who has at every turn given in to the demands of his backbenchers, has now been served up what can at best be described as very thin gruel in the form of European Council President Donald Tusk's proposed deal on renegotiation.  "Hand on heart", Dave insisted, the deal fulfils the promises made in the Conservative party manifesto.  Presumably with hand still on heart, he also said that if Britain wasn't an EU member and these were the terms on offer to join, he would do so.

Cameron is not and has never been a Eurosceptic.  Above everything else, Cameron has always been an opportunist.  Combined with his belief that through the sheer force of his will and combined animal magnetism he can achieve practically anything, he has made every appearance of being a Eurosceptic while never for a second believing the nonsense spouted by the more virulent within his party.  His move to leave the EPP grouping in the European parliament?  Utterly meaningless and incomprehensible to anyone outside the Tory party, but it helped convinced those uncertain about him that he was truly one of them.  Likewise, his much garlanded wielding of the veto back in 2011 achieved precisely nothing, other than help soothe the tendency within the Tories that regarded his failure to win the 2010 election and necessary coalition with the Lib Dems as little short of treachery.

And yet, each time he refused to call the bluff of his restive MPs, it encouraged them to push for something else.  Finally, in 2013, Cameron gave them what they had long demanded, a referendum on our membership of the EU.  As has been comprehensively proved since, Cameron has never thought for one second that Britain would be better off out.  Cameron is many things, but he's not an idiot.  For every negative, there is a positive. More than anything else, the idea that Britain will somehow manage to get a better deal on exit than either Norway or Switzerland managed having never been members is just as fanciful as the SNP's claim that once independence was won, the rUK would delight in the necessary negotiations on how to share the pound and split oil revenue etc etc.

Whether Cameron honestly believed he would win the majority necessary to hold the referendum we don't know.  Still, once achieved he had to push on, knowing full well that short of bringing back the head of Jean-Claude Juncker on a silver platter the Eurosceptics in his party would moan incessantly about how feeble his renegotiation was.  He did so also knowing full well that the the rest of the EU, dealing with a refugee crisis Cameron refuses to lift a finger to help with over, was not for so much as a second going to offer anything like the concessions on immigration and benefits that have become the proxy for public debate on the EU.

To give Cameron some credit, he has got something that didn't look to be on offer until very recently.  The emergency brake, allowing for the restricting of in-work benefits to EU migrants is roughly analogous to the ban promised in the Tory manifesto.  No one thought for a minute that Cameron would get four years, and while he hasn't quite got that, he's got something similar, albeit tempered by how migrants will get "gradual" access to in-work benefits once they've been paying into the system, probably after a couple of years.  Likewise, on the sending of child benefit to children back in their home countries, he hasn't got an outright prohibition but has won a concession that will mean the benefit will be paid most likely at the same rate as it would be if the claimant was doing so back home.  On fairness if nothing else that passes muster.

Except, of course, this has been a phony war from the beginning.  Cameron and the Tories know that benefits are not a draw for migrants; they come for the jobs and the wages, not to claim.  Every possible effort has been made to prove that benefits are a pull factor for migrants both legal and illegal, and not once has anything approaching conclusive evidence been turned up.  Cameron knew the rest of the EU would never agree to a "brake" on the free movement of labour, and so was reduced to instead attempting to convince the public into believing that rather than it being down to how we were one of only three EU nations that opened our borders in 2005 without restrictions, or to how the British economy has recovered faster than most other EU states post-2008, it's all been about tax credits.  This went alongside the attempt to restrict tax credits overall, since abandoned, meant to be made up for part by the increase in the minimum wage.  Evidence for the minimum wage being a draw is far higher than it is for benefits, so if the aim has partly been to reduce net levels of migration, it's a far bet Cameron's renegotiation will achieve little other than saving the relatively slight amounts currently claimed back in tax credits.

Most of the other concessions, including the "red card" national parliaments could wield against proposed new EU laws if 55% vote against, are relatively minor or were always going to happen when the rest of the EU undoubtedly wants Britain to stay.  Judged against the letter sent to Tusk that started this process, Cameron has got most of what he wanted.  Then again, what he wanted has no connection whatsoever with the "full-on treaty change" or fundamental reworking of our relationship with the EU once promised, and which the more naive Tory backbenchers thought they might get.  The others, those who were always going to treat whatever was served up as not good enough, have a deal they can be justifiably dismissive of.

As for the public, excepting the relative few who go along with the UKIP narrative on loss of sovereignty and the eleventy trillion pounds sent to Brussels every day, most will care only about the impact it has on migration.  Which will be next to none.  To judge by the response to the deal, which has been tepid to say the least, most quite rightly don't give a stuff about the EU.  It's there, it does things, it occasionally impacts on us, but for most it means little other than open borders and free movement of labour, for better, for worse, and that itself is threatened by the aforementioned refugee crisis.  Trying to get people who weren't bothered enough to vote in the general election to interest themselves in a referendum on something relatively arcane and on a day in high summer, should it take place on the "preferred" date of 23rd of June, is going to prove far more challenging than many seem to think.

Which only reinforces the view that Cameron and his relatively slight band of fellow Tories who don't like the EU much but prefer it to the alternative have backed themselves into a corner out of pitiful weakness, and now have to sell their gruel to the country.  Perhaps the thinking is that the engaged, the pro-Europeans versus the Eurosceptics will balance themselves out, leaving Project Fear 2.0 to work its magic on those undecided and who can be bothered to interest themselves.  Perhaps, as Lord Ashcroft's polling and research suggests, Cameron himself can win enough people over by his leading the remain campaign.  Perhaps the fact that the leave campaigners themselves seem to accept they cannot win on immigration alone, and so will have to put their otherwise easily countered and pretty feeble arguments out for public consumption, made by politicians and business leaders no one has much affection for, will count against them.

From this remove, with no solution in sight to the refugee crisis, much that can happen between now and June, and with the voter coalition he formed to win the election liable to be against him on this occasion, Cameron's great gamble looks just as mad and as hostage to fortune as it did three years.  The only real advantage he has, as then, is himself.  If it proves to not be enough, with all it will set in motion, a likely second Scottish independence referendum, inevitable resignation and a country ever more uncertain of its true place in the world, will it have been worth it?

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Tuesday, November 10, 2015 

Cameron's reckless game of EU poker.

Reading David Cameron's Chatham House speech on Europe, and his thankfully much shorter letter to European Council president Donald Tusk, you'd be forgiven for thinking that everything about Britain is great, that Britain and Europe are great together, and that Europe itself is delighted about the Tories' weird obsession with renegotiating our very membership of the union.  It's generally very positive, bouncy stuff, optimistic with the occasional flash of steel, just to underline how serious this all is.

That the only reason Cameron has done to do any of this is because the rest of Europe was fed up to the backteeth with the coquettish act, the PM continually attending EU summits where the adults were discussing immediate, real problems, e.g. the continuing refugee crisis, refusing to help and yet still demanding that they all listen to his whinges about renegotiation while not setting out as much as the basics of what he wants to negotiate has been rather lost in the spin.  Truth is that for all the eye-rolling and harrumphing, of which there has been plenty, the rest of Europe has come to the conclusion it needs Britain.  Paradoxically, the Germans want us to stay because if we left it would leave them picking up the bill for the southern EU states to an even greater degree, while the the rest of Europe wants us to stay in order to stand up to Germany, although in reality we have far more in common with the Germans than the rest of Europe.  Confused yet?

When you then remember that Cameron's whole grand renegotiation gambit started out as a sop to his restive backbenchers, peeved he hadn't won't the election outright and were having to share power with the Lib Dems, it becomes all the more convoluted.  Their immediate response was to praise Dave to the skies: the longer-term one being to keep on pushing for renegotiation to take place now right now, for the referendum to be held the day after; and now finally, to act as though they have been betrayed once again.

For if they hadn't already got an inkling from Cameron's previous speech deriding the idea we could adopt either the Norwegian or Swiss model of not being in the EU and retaining the same influence we currently have, today's follow-up made clear Dave is committed to arguing to stay in regardless of how the renegotiation goes.  After a couple of half-hearted sentences deriding the case for staying in come what may, he then dedicates a a much longer section on how leaving would affect both our economic and national security.  He challenges his opposite numbers in Europe to meet him half-way, and for those calling for the exit to engage fully, to decide what they believe in, as the vote leave and then have a second renegotiation option isn't on the table.

Like with the Bloomberg speech, today's effort was Cameron at his best.  You can quibble with a fair amount of the content, with how jarring it is compared with the usual Tory practice of being antagonistic towards Europe for the sake of it, with precisely what he intends to renegotiate, but thought and care rather than what we normally get went into this, as it had to.  It obviously helps that Cameron is pushing at an open door, as for the most part his four areas of concern are shared by other leaders.  There's little to disagree with on his asking for there to be further protections for the member states outside the Eurozone, his request for there to be a further rolling back of regulation and increase in competitiveness was to be expected and the exemption from the "ever closer union of peoples" is there purely in an attempt to appease the paranoia of those who want the Brexit.  Not quite as achievable is the demand for something to be done about freedom of movement, but even here Cameron has accepted that his asking for there to be a four year period before EU migrants can claim benefits is not a red line.  If he gets 2 years he will probably be happy.  This doesn't alter the fact such a policy is openly discriminatory,  likely to be struck down by the courts and that even the new highly questionable statistics released to back Cameron up don't come anywhere near to proving our benefits system is a pull factor, yet it's not as though it's a surprise.

None of it is, which for many will be the problem.  Government sources have been playing down for months the renegotiations, when previously it seemed as though nothing would be ruled out for discussion.  Indeed, the encouraging of the belief this would be a fundamental reworking of our relationship with Europe, when the end result is clearly nothing of the sort has already gone down badly with the headbangers on the Tory benches.   It was always going to, but what exactly the response will be from the similarly EU-loathing press remains to be seen.

Here laid bare has been the danger of Cameron's strategy all along.  Leave aside whether this is a debate that needed to be had, and there certainly is an argument for having a referendum on our relationship with Europe to answer a question that hasn't been asked directly in 40 years, and instead look at what the Tories' route to power has been.  Their approach, one of soaking the retiring boomers, focusing on those most likely to vote, and not aggravating a media that is overwhelming predisposed towards them anyway has paid dividends.  This is obviously to simplify greatly exactly how they won in May, but that's the bedrock.  All three of these groups are, unsurprisingly, likely to share the Tories' general antipathy towards the EU.

Which leaves Cameron's chances of winning a referendum when so little overall is going to change where exactly?  If Cameron and Osborne all along have favoured remaining in the EU, as you would imagine considering negotiating an exit and hoping to get more favourable terms than Norway or Switzerland, two nations who never joined in the first place, is about as stupid a concept as it gets, then the way they have gone about this whole process has been and is so risky it boggles the mind.  It's not clear that a referendum on remaining would be winnable even if there was a fundamental renegotiation which saw exemption from unpopular policies on fisheries and freedom of movement.  Such is the way a campaign on those terms would play out, where all the money is guaranteed to be spent by the leave side and where the remain argument is bland and uninspiring, nothing can be ruled in or out.  Yes, history suggests that it takes a lot for referendum campaigns opposing the status quo to win, but it's not clear whether we can rely on either the AV referendum or the Scottish independence vote as being any guide, the latter especially when it was a debate that concentrated the minds of an entire country.

Whatever you think about the EU, the same will not be able to be said about the referendum when it does come.  Cameron can claim as often as he likes that it will be the most important vote possibly in our lifetimes; it won't be.  Leaving would be an act of self harm, just it won't be as damaging potentially as the last or the next general election.  The prime minister seems to believe that his hold on the nation is so great that he alone will be able to achieve a remain vote, when the coalition that won him his small majority will shatter irrevocably.  Why should those who plumped for anyone but the Tories deign to vote remain when Cameron has made no attempt to unite the nation beyond ludicrous, contradictory addresses to his own party?  What makes him think turnout, the probable saviour of the union in Scotland, will be above 50% on this most arcane and dullest of measures to most people, when turnout in the AV referendum was 42% and it took place on the same day as local elections? A win for leave will as Cameron said be final.  There will be no second renegotiation.  The SNP have made clear a leave vote will be an effective trigger for a second independence referendum, and there's no reason to doubt the probable result.

Perhaps then Cameron knows something we don't.  Perhaps he thinks in a battle where he will face off against the likes of Nigel Farage, Jacob Rees-Mogg and the other anti-EU monomaniacs, there will only be one winner.  He could be right.  It is nonetheless a massive gamble, one that started out as a stalling measure.  If Cameron truly believes leaving that EU would be a disaster both economically and in terms of national security, then he has been cavalier, reckless in the extreme.  He's acted like a poker player with two pairs, believing his opponent is bluffing as much as he is and will fold before the stakes get too high.  Those opposed to the EU will never fold.  We'd better hope that two pair is in fact four aces.

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Tuesday, July 01, 2014 

When presenting failure as success works.

You furnish decay with innocent hands.  You furnish decay with polymer down.

Politics is a strange, constantly changing, always the same business.  There are times when you can present failure as success and get away with it, and there are times when you can claim failure when you've succeeded and get pilloried for it.  You can travel across Europe, get the signature of a world leader that condemns an entire country and be feted for ensuring peace (at least for a few months), or you can go to Brussels, be completely humiliated, shown up as having precisely no influence over anything, and yet be cheered to the rafters by your backbenchers and most of the media as though you didn't just stop someone unsuitable from becoming EU commission president, but put a lance through their bowel in the bargain.

This is the really odd thing about David Cameron: for all the insults liberally thrown at Ed Miliband, about being weak, a loser, a nerd, weird, by rights the two former jibes should have stuck to our glorious prime minister.  Ever since he went to the Eurozone summit back at the tail end of 2011 and wielded the veto, achieving precisely zilch other than further isolating Britain in Europe, his policy on the EU has been one flub after another, yielding to his backbenchers in a way that would have seen his predecessors condemned as vacillating pygmies.

Pressured by growing discontent at his leadership, he promised an in/out referendum in 2017 following a successful re-negotiation of our role in the EU, believing giving a set in stone pledge would buy off his more intransigent critics.  Instead, as was wholly predictable, they've kept on pushing, trying repeatedly to hold the next government to account by forcing the referendum on to the statute book despite it being utterly futile.  Nor did it have the other desired effect of showing UKIP voters the only way to be sure of a vote is to support the Tories; again, if anything, it's just pushed those already disposed to wanting out to plump for Farage.  Cameron insists he wants us to stay in, after all.  Why would they be bought off with half measures?  To complete the trifecta, it hasn't trapped Labour either, Miliband refusing to promise a referendum when there are far more pressing issues to be dealt with, and when staying in is so obviously in our interests.

If another aim was to make it clear to the rest of Europe we could leave, causing concern leading to  continental leaders becoming more amenable to to Tory demands, that's gone for the birds as well.  And no wonder, as the only way most Eurosceptics know how to communicate is through abuse.  Whatever Jean-Claude Juncker is, he's not the most dangerous man in Europe, that old formulation given life yet again by the Sun.  When the Germans, otherwise sympathetic to Cameron and desperate to ensure we don't leave do a volte face and support Juncker, it's not just down to Angela Merkel coming under domestic pressure, it's also in part due to our counter-productive attempts at lobbying, or more accurately described, that odd mixture of threatening and pleading.

We are then according even to Cameron one step closer to the exit.  Juncker's presidency of the Commission will make the re-negotiation more difficult.  Understandably, the likes of Bill Cash and Edward Leigh lap it up, unconcerned at how the exit happens so long as it does.  Nor does the obvious weakness of a British prime minister concern those it would normally excise deeply.  It also doesn't bother them how the increasing likelihood of leaving the EU could affect the Scottish independence referendum, when the SNP have been campaigning on the basis of being a welcoming country, wanting to be an active member of the EU, calling for more immigration rather than less.  The dismay of the vast majority of the business community is something else that can be shrugged off, especially when Labour is seen with such suspicion.

On almost any other issue Cameron would have been filleted had he talked so big and ended up achieving so little.  When the level of debate about the EU is so wonderfully summed up by the classlessness of UKIP MEPs turning their backs in parliament though, the kind of political gesture that would make fifth-formers look like idiots, it just doesn't get through the dissonance.  A man who supposedly wants us to remain in a reformed Europe gave into the demands of his want out MPs at the first sign of trouble, and on every occasion since has multiplied the magnitude of his original error.  If the Tories win in 2015, a huge if, he faces the nightmarish prospect of having to bargain and cajole those he and other members of the cabinet have insulted, knowing it could end up in a choice between putting either the interests of the country or himself as Tory party leader first.  Going by his past decisions, it's not difficult to ascertain which option he'd go for.

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Tuesday, May 07, 2013 

Cameron: a hostage to fortune.

Although it feels like aeons ago, it was only back in January that David Cameron delivered his Bloomberg speech, pledging an in/out referendum on EU membership should his party win the next election. At the time it must have seemed a good idea, and initially it looked like it had had its desired effect: his restive backbenchers cheered him to the rafters, it seemed to have trapped Labour, and surely it would have some impact on the increase in support for Ukip.

Less than six months later and it's as though the jaws of the trap have snapped back. To further mix metaphors, it always seemed as though Cameron was setting himself up as a hostage to fortune. The man he so wanted to be the heir to never gave in to his backbenchers; instead he thrived on picking fights with them. True, Cameron failed where Blair succeeded, which partially explains the backbencher ire in the first place, yet Dave caved in at first sign of trouble.  Rather than being sated, they've demanded ever since that Cameron move faster, to the point where it looks as though legislation may be forthcoming in this parliament as a further sop.

Nor has it had the desired effect on Ukip. Indeed, they've been emboldened by it, as was predicted. As counter-intuitive as it seems, support for Ukip isn't about Europe, as is now hopefully apparent. It can be overstated just how far the popularity, such as it is, for Farage is down to a state of mind, and it'd be great to quantify how many of those saying they'd vote for the party would still do so if there was to be a vote on the EU tomorrow.  Total disaffection and/or sending a message of protest nonetheless explains much of it.  It's possible that some of those who've decamped could be won back if Cameron shifted slightly further to the right, or better yet, recruited some advisers from outside his own social milieu, but it's deeply dubious as to whether those voicing their discontent beyond a mere protest can be so easily persuaded to return.

Thankfully, it does seem as though those making clear that much of Ukip's support is irreconcilable are now in the majority.  As easy as it is to fall into stereotype, it's difficult not to meet the odd person that fits all the descriptions of being a Kipper, and they usually aren't shy in venturing their views on Britain as it is in 2013.  They might not be racist, but they certainly don't like immigrants even if they don't mind those they know of locally; they blame the EU at the first opportunity; and they are invariably complaining about something or other.  They don't have to read the Mail/Express/Telegraph, but it helps, and they regard things as being much better at some point in the past, even if they can't say exactly when.

The obvious point to make is that plenty of people also hold one or more of the above things to be self-evident, yet they either don't let everyone else know about it or would ever dream of voting for a party other than the main three.  Nor are any of these things irrational or wrong; rapid change in local communities as happened post-2004 was bound to lead to a backlash, while even those of us who would stay in the EU hardly regard it as being anything close to an unmitigated force for good.  Nostalgia also has to be taken into account: reading the Graun's pieces today on 1963 you can't help but think that was a pretty good year on the whole.  Would any of us who weren't around at the time actually want to live in that period were such a thing possible though?  Almost certainly not.

Those who have moved to Ukip also realise they can't turn the clock back.  They might want to, and they want to make clear that they do, but they know full well that Ukip isn't going to win a general election, nor necessarily would they want Farage to be the prime minister.  This is the conundrum facing the Tories: in almost every way, the party would be a better vehicle for their discontent, as many of their MPs also hold Ukip voters' prejudices, yet for any number of reasons they've lost faith in them and so would rather register their anger elsewhere.  This can't all be put down to Cameron or the detoxification strategy, nor can it be easily explained by all three parties fighting over the same territory.  It is more, as Max Dunbar writes, a lashing out at the present while coming over all rose-tinted about the past.  Perhaps it can be best explained thus: whereas the young disenchanted simply don't vote, those who feel much the same but who were brought up with the importance of the franchise drilled into them regard putting an X in the Ukip box the least worst option.

Lord Lawson's call for us to leave the EU immediately doesn't really change things much.  The EU is the least of most people's worries, although should the Tories increasingly fight over just how soon the referendum should be they might become excised at the amount of attention something arcane is receiving.  Cameron's problem is that a move that was designed to buy him more time and hopefully damage the other parties has so spectacularly backfired.  He doesn't want us to leave the EU, businesses on the whole don't want us to leave, and nor I'd wager would the electorate should the vote be held tomorrow.  He can't however take such a risk, and so the uncertainty that is so damaging will continue instead.  And all the time the boneheads within his party continue their rattling.

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Wednesday, January 23, 2013 

If, if and if.

If there's one thing to be said for David Cameron's long-awaited, twice postponed speech on Europe, it's that it's almost certainly the best of his premiership so far.  The chief reason for it being so good however is precisely its weakness: to call it vague on detail is an understatement.  It reminds of the countless articles written by opposition politicians, all promising to do something but not spelling out how they would do so if given the opportunity.  The only actual EU directive he suggested he would like to re-negotiate or renege from was on working time, otherwise going after the usual bugbears of regulation and red tape.  Put it this way: apart from that specific detail, there was little in the speech that anyone apart from the most ardent Europhile or Eurosceptic could possibly disagree with.  We all want an improved, more streamlined EU, and if this was genuinely what Cameron was seeking, substantial reform rather than renegotiation, he'd deserve cross-party support.

Except he isn't.  Cameron and his party only care about Europe in the sense that they mostly like the economic benefits while loathing everything else that comes with it.  Those economic benefits have since been somewhat undermined in their eyes by the Labour government's decision to opt into the social chapter, which brought in new workplace protections that we never had previously.  This is the view shared by some businesses, although not by all, many of whom reach the view that the positives of the single market and free movement of labour within the EU outweigh the negatives of increased worker protection.  Cameron's gamble is that business as a whole will get behind his bid for renegotiation, and won't be unnerved by the potential for the eventual referendum to result in a big fat no.  For the most part so far they've kept relatively quiet, almost certainly for the reason that they doubt it's going to actually happen.

After all, who at the moment is willing to bet that the Tories will still be in government after the next election?  Anything can still happen, but the polls aren't in his favour.  Indeed, another strand of Cameron's strategy is that going for the in/out referendum will trap Labour and Ed Miliband, just as Osborne previously aimed to with his benefits cap. The polls haven't moved, and while it would be foolish to say they also won't this time, it's likely any Tory boost will be shortlived.

Where it could have more of an impact is on the rise in support for UKIP. While much of their improved polling is down to protest votes, the offer of a referendum could well be enough to win over some of those who've become disillusioned with the Tories. If we're to believe Lord Ashcroft's polling though, much of the UKIP hardcore appear to think we live in a dystopia much like that imagined by Richard Littlejohn in his sadly overlooked To Hell in a Handcart novel; nothing short of bringing back hanging, the birch and the black and white minstrels is going to return them to the fold. The whole point of UKIP in any case, as Sunny notes, is to get out of the EU altogether, not make it slightly more acceptable as Cameron claims to want. Besides, Cameron's gambit has led to Nigel Farage taking as much credit as the prime minister's backbenchers, a spectacular result for a party leader without a single MP and fewer councillors than the Greens.

Equally clear is it's those backbenchers that are the other main victors, at least for now.  The Tory leadership has gone in the space of a year from voting against an in/out referendum to promising exactly that.  The only explanation for this latest u-turn is just how restive the party has become, as a report in the Sunday Times last week suggested.  Quite why Cameron has given in when the stakes are so high is difficult to properly ascertain: although they don't seem to realise it, Cameron is about the only asset the Conservatives have.  Defenestrating him and installing someone further to the right is not going to win them the next election, regardless of how some despite everything believe they would have won the election outright if it wasn't for Cameron's liberal tendencies.  Tony Blair repeatedly took on his backbenchers until they ended up hating him regardless of their electoral success; Cameron has thrown in the towel at the sight of the first punch heading towards him.

The problem for both them and Cameron is that regardless of what they might say when asked specifically on it, the vast majority of people don't care about Europe and the EU.  They are concerned about immigration as a result of the EU, or the European Court of Human Rights, but Cameron clearly isn't intending to renege from open borders when business is often in favour of no limits whatsoever, while the ECHR is part of the Council of Europe rather than the EU.  They also care when politicians obsess about an issue that they feel has little bearing on their lives, as the Tories have in the past.  Rather than stopping his party from "banging on about Europe", Cameron has just started off an utterly tedious debate that could potentially last four years, and will involve us seeing much more of such bores as Peter Bone, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Bill Cash.  The idea that this will instantly result in a swing back to the Tories or even win them the next election is naive.

My personal view has long been that there should be in/out referendum, both to settle the question for a generation and for the reason that I've long thought we would vote to stay in given the option.  We don't need to wait four years to do that; we could have it within six months.  My gut instinct is should the Tories win the next election (a huge if) Cameron probably would succeed in getting something back in a treaty renegotiation, mainly because the Germans clearly want us to stay in and they're going to continue holding the purse strings in the EU for years to come, with the 25 other countries going along with it.  He could then say he's done what he said he would and go to the country.  The obvious problem then is, if he's achieved something even remotely close to what the Eurosceptics who want to stay in say they want, what's the point of the EU if it works only for business and not for anyone else?  Already the shift amongst the Eurozone countries has been to effectively outlaw Keynesian economics, and with Cameron and friends repeatedly saying we're in a race where in their view workers' rights are outdated, it's not too outlandish to imagine that there could be movement on the social chapter as well.

What though if Cameron doesn't get anything approaching what his backbenchers want?  Will he still campaign for a vote to stay in?  Cameron might have caved in to his party as it makes things easier for him in the short term, but he knows full well business will mutiny if he hardens his position any further.  This is why Ed Miliband has been right to refuse to support such a referendum, not only because of all the hypotheticals involved, but as it's pointless if you're not the one doing the negotiating.  Yes, the public should have a say and soon, yet surely they should know exactly what it is they're going to be voting either for or against.  The next election, despite Cameron's navel-gazing, won't be about Europe, it'll be about living standards, the economy, the state of the NHS and whether austerity has worked.  In all probability, and for those very reasons, Cameron isn't going to be doing anything other than sitting on the backbenches himself come 2017.

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Friday, December 09, 2011 

In Europe, without influence.

The deal reached in Brussels this morning is on nearly every conceivable level a disaster. It locks the Eurozone countries already struggling into a market imposed strait-jacket of austerity and cuts, without ensuring that the European Central Bank will even now step in to provide the money the stability fund needs to be able to back up Italian debts. There's a close to unbelievable irony in the European Commission having to sign off the national budgets of Eurozone members when, regardless of the lack of auditors or complications, the EU's own books haven't been deemed acceptable for the last 16 years. Rather than recognising that it's been the very differences in the economies of the Eurozone members that have brought it to this point, this new deal draws them in even tighter, with even more burdensome rules. National sovereignty has been even further sacrificed for what now looks increasingly like an utterly doomed project, with everyone required to line up behind the deeply underwhelming Merkozy partnership, itself liable to break-up next year when France goes to the polls.

Implausible as it might seem, David Cameron's involvement has been an even bigger catastrophe. Here was a wonderful opportunity for a British prime minister to lead those other countries deeply uncertain about the Merkozy plans, giving them a voice at the table. If there's going to be a "two-speed" Europe, made up primarily of those outside the Eurozone, then Britain ought to be the one that speaks up for them. Cameron instead did exactly what his Eurosceptic bankbenchers wanted him to do: he talked big. And what did he get in return? Absolutely nothing. Rather than winning over the likes of the Swedes, Czechs and Hungarians, all of whom will now be consulting their parliaments over the treaty changes, he turned them off by continuing to insist on the sanctity of the City over everything else. By using his veto he hasn't stopped the Tobin tax, as the French and Germans refused outright to reconsider their position on introducing it. Nor has he stopped the Eurozone members from going through with the changes, which was never his intention anyway. All it adds up to is he doesn't have to try and get an overall treaty change through the Commons, something he was unlikely to manage.

This is a very short-term victory, it's true. In the longer term it leaves Cameron in an unenviable position. Already the Eurosceptics in the party are agitating for more, and who could possibly blame them? By leaving Britain possibly in a gang of one, should the other three countries all sign up to the new pact however unlikely it may seem now, all our influence on future changes has disappeared in a flash. What then, beyond the advantages of the single market, remains the point of staying in the EU? The Conservatives already loathe the social chapter, the working time directive, the common fisheries policy and all the other "regulatory" burdens they imagine are holding British business back, so why stay in when the negatives in their view so overwhelmingly outweigh the positives? The slightly more pragmatic, as Bagehot notes, want a re-negotiation to remove these impediments, while the hardline Europhobes seem to imagine us as Switzerland with nuclear weapons, or Norway without the oil. Both positions especially now seem to be utter fantasy. Having just so thoroughly pissed off the French and annoyed everyone else with his high-handedness, any such attempts at changing our relationship would be the equivalent of pulling teeth; ours.

All of which is to completely ignore the Tories' real paymasters, British business. They too might loathe the regulations the EU sets down, but the vast majority see no point whatsoever in a renegotiation doomed to failure, let alone the myriad of problems that would arise as a result of us pulling out altogether. They'll be looking at what's gone on today, both the apparent suicidal tendencies of the main Eurozone countries as well as the grandstanding of Cameron and be in despair. The CBI has notably so far said "wait and see", which is hardly an endorsement of either position. Should they look back in a few months/years time and see that Cameron has essentially led the country down the path of isolation, it would certainly be enough for them to think about trusting Labour again.

William Hague's old slogan while leader was that his party's position was to be "in Europe, not run by Europe". Cameron's achievement is to be in Europe while having no influence over it. Romano Prodi has described it as "gained freedom, but lost power". Even more apposite is Nosemonkey's observation that at least Chamberlain came back with a piece of paper. It was worthless, but it was something. Cameron has brought back nothing but more problems for himself.

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Thursday, November 03, 2011 


The one thing that stands out above everything else in the Eurozone crisis is just how terrified the politicians involved are, even if they're hiding it beneath the anger currently being directed at Greek prime minister George Papandreou. If it's difficult to take everything in or come close to understanding just what's at stake, and politics nerds are themselves struggling, then this piece by the continually excellent Larry Elliot more or less explains it. The fear is that should Greece default, we'll be in a similar situation to that of September 2008 when Lehman Brothers was allowed to go bankrupt. Should Greece go under, then the fear is that the contagion will then spread to Italy, although it may already have done, as bond yields are approaching unsustainable levels. The main European banks are far more exposed to Italian debt than they are to Greece, as this chart scarily demonstrates.

We all know what happened then. The banks were bailed out, interest rates were cut to almost nothing and a stimulus package then followed. The recession that could follow the collapse of the Eurozone and the default of Greece and Italy (with Spain, Portugal and Ireland possibly reneging on their debts too) would probably put paid to the early 1930s as the era known as the great depression. The room for manoeuvre is almost non-existent.

This goes some way then to explain the reaction of France and Germany to Papandreou's initial decision to hold a referendum on the bail out. First, it should be pointed out that Papandreou himself went out on a limb amongst his party in giving the impression of asking the people: he didn't tell them what he was going to do. Secondly, it may well have been a ploy: it looks tonight as though the Greek opposition, who were opposing the further austerity the bail out was going to impose may well join a coalition, with Papandreou stepping aside. This doesn't mean that they're going to carry the people with them, obviously, but it should make it ever so slightly more representative.

Even so, the behaviour of Sarkozy and Merkel (and others too) has been shocking. Last week the non-Berlusconi owned Italian press that has long despaired of the prime minister protested at the insulting manner taken by the pair towards the country and the ability of its current government to impose reforms. This was nothing to the treatment meted out to Papandreou in Cannes yesterday evening, and in turn to the Greeks themselves. It may well be the taxpayers of France and Germany that are having to stump up to bail out the country, but this is nothing to the next few years the Greeks themselves are going to have to go through. Unemployment is already 20% and the state is no longer offering some services. There is every sign Greece is being asked to put itself into a death spiral to save a failing political project, and that sacrifice is not even being slightly acknowledged.

It's this unthinking arrogance bordering on blackmail that will end up being remembered. On the surface it appears to prove the democratic deficit at the heart of the European Union, with the big nations bullying those they now admit should never have been admitted it to the Eurozone in the first place. For those of us who support the EU's intentions, if not its methods, it only seems to confirm the long-held arguments of our opponents, who have been crowing all week about how they were insulted and slandered and have ultimately been proved right, willfully confusing the Eurozone with the EU. Their case has always been that the European project has been constructed over the heads of the people themselves, and now in the ultimate expression of that the Greeks are being given no choice about their own destiny. There will always be those whom, often quite rightly, argue that through electing parties in favour of the EU we've given our consent yet this is something quite different. It's not being too alarmist to suggest there could be a people's revolution against a democratically elected government over this, if the military doesn't step in first.

An orderly (if there can be such a thing) default ought to have been engineered months ago. Instead there's been almost a year of uncertainty, with the Greeks forced to swallow a medicine that has only made things worse. We seem to have acquired a whole generation of politicians, of both the nominal left and right, who believe in institutions rather than people themselves. At the end of this there simply has to be a reckoning for all of those involved, and in truth it's been a very long time in coming.

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