UKIP: Cameron’s Pandora’s box
With Ukip riding high in the polls, writes Eddie Ford, the Tories are desperate to steal its votes
Finally, the waiting is over. On January 18 we will get to hear David Cameron’s much anticipated ‘big speech’ about Europe.
Of course, within the Conservative Party there is a substantial rump of far-right and plain loony MPs, content to peddle endless xenophobic gibberish - especially after a good lunch. Such pathetic, nationalist drivel, needless to say, attracts significant grassroots support and - alas - strikes a certain resonance with a section of the British populace. Nor is the excitement confined to the Tory and tabloid press. Doubtlessly the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain and others will use the speech as an opportunity to promote their noxious national socialist agenda of withdrawing from the European Union ‘capitalist club’ but remaining within the United Kingdom ‘capitalist club’.
Cameron is walking a tightrope. He could easily end up pleasing nobody but upsetting virtually everybody. Many Eurosceptic backbenchers want a simple in/out referendum on continued UK membership of the EU, preferably sooner rather than later. Unless adverse political circumstances presented him with almost no choice, it seems extremely unlikely that Cameron would go down that particular path, but he has to throw “the bastards” (as John Major memorably and not inaccurately called them) some juicy red meat to stop them going for his throat.
Therefore Cameron promises to hold a referendum on a “new EU settlement” if the Tories are elected with a majority in 2015. This will entail “renegotiating” London’s terms of membership or the “repatriation” of certain powers if there are any revisions to the Lisbon treaty - a near certainty considering the beached EU project and the ongoing euro crisis.
The British electorate willing, these Tory plans for renegotiation will take place in 2017 or 2018 - a very long time when it comes to EU politics. Cameron has already revealed to his Conservative cabinet colleagues what his negotiating strategy is going to be and has already annoyed some, most notably Kenneth Clarke. Cameron has certainly opened up a Pandora’s box and almost anything could happen. Certainly the fault-lines within the Tory Party, and the coalition as a whole, are thoroughly exposed.
Why is Cameron taking such a gamble? Frankly, because he is worried about Europe - worried that it could cost him the next general election. Opinion polls have consistently shown that large numbers want to get out of the EU and, far more importantly still, the United Kingdom Independence Party’s political fortunes are currently riding high.
Last November Ukip notched up some pretty impressive by-election results, especially in Rotherham, where it came second on 21.79% of the vote. Some recent polls have put Ukip third - more ominous signs for the Liberal Democrats. An Opinium/Observer survey conducted in January 8 puts Labour at 41%, whilst the Tories are on 31%. But Ukip is on 12%, compared to the Lib Dems’ 7%, the lowest figure ever recorded for the party by that particular polling agency. The same poll shows that over half of the British public believe that the UK should withdraw from the EU if Cameron cannot negotiate a “significant return” of powers. A majority (57%) also believed that the UK’s interests are “fundamentally different” from other member states.
However, only 25% believed it was likely that the prime minister would be successful in taking powers back in areas such as employment, compared to 47% who said it was unlikely. Naturally, 69% of Ukip supporters believe that a successful renegotiation would be unlikely, while just 18% think it would be likely - and 88% of them agreed with the statement, “I would be more likely to vote for a party if they promised a referendum on whether the UK should remain in the EU or withdraw”.
In other words, whilst Ukip cannot win the next general election, it can certainly lose it for the Conservatives. Expressing Tory anxiety, the party’s vice-chairman, Michael Fabricant, has argued that “all parties should keep their options open” in the final months towards May 2015 - ie, the Conservative Party would be foolish to dismiss out of hand the idea of an electoral pact with Ukip. He even claimed that Ukip could come first in the 2014 European parliamentary elections! Which would certainly give it “some momentum” before the general election.
Leaving aside such speculation, some Tory strategists say that electoral logic demands that Cameron moves closer to Ukip territory in order to undermine its vote - or face the boot in 2015. Pitching his tent, Cameron told ITV1’s Daybreak programme that, though the “beating heart” of Britain needs to be in Europe because “we’re a trading nation”, he was determined to resist “too much interference” and “bossiness” from Brussels. Such a view was now a “mainstream aspiration” among voters, not just a Ukip concern (The Guardian January 14).
As for Ukip leader Nigel Farage, he claims his party is now part of the “political mainstream”. He said Ukip would talk to other parties about a pact if they promised a referendum on Europe - but the Tories would first have to ditch Cameron and get someone more “sensible”. After all, didn’t the prime minister say in 2006 that Ukip were a “bunch of fruitcakes and loonies and closet racists”? A scandalous suggestion. Farage is also on record that he would “do a deal with the devil if it got us a full, free and fair referendum”.
Well, there might be a quite a few candidate devils in the Tory Party. Like Eric Pickles, the misnamed communities secretary, who informed Pienaar’s politics on BBC Radio 5 Live (January 13) that Britain should not remain in the EU “at any price” and pledged to cast his vote in the referendum based on what he judged to be the “national interest” - not necessarily “voting on party lines”.
Meanwhile, the Fresh Start group - which seems to be backed by more than a 100 Tory MPs - is about to publish its “nuclear” proposals for Europe. Declaring that the status quo is “no longer an option”, its “manifesto for change” will demand the repatriation of “key powers” in order to retain the UK’s “national democratic accountability”. More specifically, the backbench body calls for “significant revisions” to the EU treaties to allow a “complete repatriation” of social and employment laws, for example - why can’t workers in Britain be forced to work more than 48 hours a week? And if Britain does not get what it wants, then the government should consider the “unilateral disapplication” of EU social and employment law in Britain.
Obviously, not a view shared by Kenneth Clarke, a cabinet minister without portfolio. He told the Financial Times that calling for a referendum is “what the hangers and floggers used to do”, he is deeply worried that Cameron’s “gamble” could lead to the UK exiting the EU, which would leave Britain with a “reduced role in the global political world”.
Predictably, there is widespread international disquiet over Cameron’s current stance - most notably in the US. Philip Gordon, the assistant secretary for European affairs, cautioned on January 9 that referendums have “often turned countries inwards”. He went on explain that the US wants an “outward-looking” and “unified” EU with Britain in it as a “strong voice” - that is in the “American interest”. To put it more plainly, the UK’s “special relationship” with US imperialism would be devalued in the eyes of the Obama administration if Britain left the EU.
For the US, Britain’s role is quite clear. Only by being at the core of the EU, not sitting grumpily on the sidelines, can the UK fulfil its traditional function of stifling Franco-German ambitions to become the alternative hegemon to US imperialism. True, as things stand now, this prospect seems quite fantastical - the EU bureaucracy cannot even work out what to do with tiny Greece, let alone challenge US supremacy. Nevertheless, the US aims to remain the world’s only super-power, or global cop. And Britain’s usefulness lies precisely in its ability to help the US maintain that position.
Another very important aspect of the ‘big speech’ is the revealing light it throws on the Lib Dems’ relationship to their coalition partners. The Weekly Worker cannot be counted among those who think the coalition is weak and could be blown away by the first protest strike. The wretched Liberal Democrats have been reduced to a slave party, tied to the Tories, come what may. Just look at them. In a cruel but exquisitely deserving twist of fate, the ‘pro-European’ Lib Dems now sit in a government alongside extreme Europhobes plotting to get Britain out. Nick Clegg has warned that uncertainty over the EU will have “chilling effect” on jobs and that the “arcane debate” over UK membership could go on for many years. Agony upon agony. But absolutely no talk of divorcing the Tories or pulling out of the coalition.
In reality, the Con-Dem coalition will almost certainly last to the next general election. Cameron needs the Lib Dems, especially in the absence of an electoral pact with Ukip, and the Lib Dems have little option but to preserve the coalition for as long as possible, since they will be wiped out come polling day if they stand independently - another safe bet. That is the nature of the Con-Dem ‘special relationship’