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EU politics: "I come to bury UKIP, not to praise it"

Richard North, 20/12/2012  


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If we are to believe the Daily Mail and, to some extent, the The Daily Telegraph, David Cameron has been so spooked by the apparent rise in support for UKIP that he is now determined to "fight the 2015 general election as an anti-Europe party".

To loud banging of desks, he told the 1922 Committee last night that the party had to get "the big calls right" and there was no bigger call than the decision the party had to make on Europe.

Thus, records the Telegraph, he told his MPs, "I want you all to be absolutely clear - we will go into the next election with a clear Eurosceptic position. It will clearly be in tune with the British people, we will be the ones offering the British people a genuine change and a genuine choice".

What Cameron then said was that he wanted to "grab the opportunity" to win a "clear mandate" at the next election to reshape Britain's relationship with Europe – so marking the transition from a man who, when he first became Tory leader, told his party to stop "banging on about Europe".

Predictably, comments (where they are allowed) are hostile, with UKIPites to the fore, questioning Mr Cameron's good faith. The failure to deliver on the "cast iron" promise of a referendum on Lisbon runs deep, and has gravely damaged his credibility.

However before UKIP crows too much, the game plan is very much as predicted, and can hardly have been shaped by recent events. On this blog, we have consistently maintained that Mr Cameron would hold off any action on the EU until after the election, and that we would see a promise of a referendum as a means of "parking" the issue until the election was over.

So far, this is exactly what we are seeing – despite the belief in some quarters that we would see a referendum before the election. That was never going to happen. And, while Mr Cameron might at this stage be pledging to fight the election on "Europe", we can be pretty sure that he will use whatever pledge he makes to neutralise the issue for the duration of the election campaign.

What is emerging more clearly, though, is that Cameron is under huge pressure to offer an "out" option in any referendum promise. All the indications are that he is still going for a renegotiation, although he cannot have been cheered by Hollande's responses at the last European Council.

The confused state, therefore, probably reflects the confusion that reins in Downing Street and, indeed, in Mr Cameron's own mind. The best understanding of the state of the art suggests that we can get no sense of what is going to happen because Mr Cameron has not himself made up his mind as to what he is going to do.

Nevertheless, the prime minister has at least committed himself to delivering his "Big Speech" on the EU by mid-January. After the successive delays, he would find it very hard to resile on that, and further delay would be damaging. Reading the runes, with Cameron telling us that the Conservative Party will be offering the British people "a genuine change and a genuine choice", he is going to have to come up with something very convincing to still the growing criticism of his inertia.

While the pundit are focusing on UKIP, though, there are some indications that strategists are looking beyond the superficial nostrums offered by the Mail. Whatever the polls might currently say, the fact is that UKIP has only been able to draw on an average three percent of the electorate over the last twelve by-elections.

Compared with that, we are facing the prospect of thirty percent of the electorate going AWOL at the next general election. Pulling in a proportion of that cohort could outnumber the dissidents and bury UKIP. After all, if Cameron does genuinely offer us a referendum with an "out" option, would it make sense to keep the Conservatives out of office?

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