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16 May 2013

Cameron’s European problem

Cameron’s European problem

David Cameron was under sustained pressure this week to strengthen his position on the European Union after MPs from his party broke ranks. Peter Bone and John Baron tabled an amendment to the Queen's Speech expressing regret that a bill detailing plans for a referendum on membership of the EU was absent from government plans for the coming year.

While the prime minister visited the United States his problems were not left behind. Questions continued to prey on his photo calls with President Obama and Prince Harry, and a hastily arranged draft bill was published to demonstrate the party's, but not the coalition's, intent. A referendum in 2017 had already been proposed, on the assumption that the Conservatives win a further term in government and are not constrained by the compromises of coalition government. The referendum is also offered on the presumption that the UK's relationship with Europe will be renegotiated, and the prime minister will then campaign for maintained membership.

The first condition is only likely to be met if the Conservatives' fortunes considerably improve. And there is doubt whether the government can negotiate sufficient powers back from European control to satisfy his party, and in that event, support his case for continued membership. Government ministers also spoke out against the European Union, saying that while they back their leader's policy, were a vote taken today they would opt to exit the union.

The vote in parliament failed to attract enough supporters to derail the government's programme, but enough Conservative MPs backed the motion to remind the pmrime inister of the strength of feeling on this issue within his party. The United Kingdom Independence Party's strong showing in the recent local elections induced the current bout of forceful euroscepticism. Emerging from negligible representation on local councils across England they gained 139 seats and a projected national share of the vote of 23 per cent.

Next year's elections to the European parliament appear to offer a further custom made opportunity for UKIP to notch up more electoral successes. This final test at the ballot box before 2015's general election, on turf which plays to UKIP's strengths, is likely to invoke nervousness within the Conservative Party. The Prime Minister has tried to quieten opposition by taking a strong line in EU budget negotiations and offering an in/out referendum following the next election. However, because the current coalition would not support a referendum bill, the draft published this week has been taken up by James Wharton MP who topped the private members bill ballot but has barely any more prospect of becoming law than any other backbencher's personal proposal.

In trying to reclaim political ground from UKIP by strengthening his party's position on Europe the prime minister makes two assumptions, which are of dubious reliability. First, it assumes those opting for UKIP over the Conservatives can be wooed back by a stronger position against the EU. Those for whom the EU is a sufficiently important issue to provoke them to support UKIP are unlikely to be satisfied with David Cameron's offer when UKIP will always, as long as out of government, be able to take a harder line and skirt over some of the likely complexities.

Second, the approach adopted by the Conservatives of late suggests that the exodus of support to UKIP is based on the UK's relationship with the EU. While that may be one factor, and for some people the most important, it is by no means the only factor and issues around the economy and immigration, and trust in public institutions also provoke voters to support a party which explicitly sets itself apart from conventional party politics. UKIP uses Europe as both the target of their critique and a symbol of wider disenchantment with political institutions. There is therefore a strong anti-politics element to their appeal and the more other parties try to drag them into the political ring to fight on the same terms, the more it strengthens their critique of that very system.

Local elections also have a habit of acting as an outlet for political frustration. In this year's poll many voted for UKIP as an act of defiance, and for many the government's pursuit of legislation redefining marriage was a crucial factor. UKIP, as the only party in many places who stood on a platform opposing the government's plans, were the recipient of votes from many who would otherwise not support their positions. Therefore, a limited more eurosceptic tone from the Conservative leadership is unlikely to satisfy these dissenters.

While UKIP may not have yet provoked a decisive change in the country's political landscape it could well set the agenda for political debate over the next two years, and whether it finds success in elections to the House of Commons in 2015 or not it is unlikely to be ignored.