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EU politics: no benefit of the doubt for Cameron

Richard North, 05/01/2013  


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Chris Grayling, interviewed in The Daily Telegraph today, argues that David Cameron should be supported on his stance on the European Union. And in so doing, he encapsulates the very reasons why so many people will not support him.

Only someone completely detached from reality, for instance, would think it sensible to argue how important it is, as Grayling does, that "if we're setting down a path towards renegotiation that people get behind David Cameron and give him the benefit of the doubt …".

One really does have to wonder at what is going through Grayling's head here. If one had to choose one theme that dominated contemporary political discourse, it would have to be the growing lack of trust in the political classes, and the strengthening of the anti-politician mood.

Alongside that, we also see a very significant resentment directed personally at Mr Cameron, for his refusal to arrange a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, and his "dance of the seven veils" on the European Union question has done little more than irritate and frustrate in equal measure.

Summing it up, the Scottish Herald recently wrote of "Cameron's crass EU game, observing that he was offering "the worst of both worlds, tantalising his malcontents and preaching the national interest simultaneously".

On top of this, there is a very significant constituency which does not accept that treaty renegotiation is a realistic or genuine position, suspecting with good cause that Cameron is seeking to fend off pressure to withdraw from the EU by fobbing us off with a mirror version of Harold Wilson's 1975 referendum.

It is in this atmosphere of distrust and suspicion, that Grayling's comments must be seen. For him blithely to demand of us that we give Mr Cameron the benefit of the doubt is so incredibly unrealistic that it borders on arrogance - a total disdain for public opinion.

Mr Grayling surely cannot be unaware that Cameron has used up what little stock of trust he ever had, and it is now for him to recover the situation of his own making. His forthcoming speech on "Europe" speech will be a huge test of his good faith, and the text will be picked over and examined in detail. No one is in the mood to give him any benefit of the doubt. That was long ago exhausted.

But when we come back to Grayling, the senior politician compounds the error by claiming that Conservative supporters who switchtheir allegiance to UKIP risk handing the next election to Ed Miliband.

"I think all those who are tempted to say, 'oh well, you know if we just went off and voted UKIP it would some how make a big difference' … I think they’re making a fundamental mistake. They risk gifting the leadership of this country in what will be a crucial period to the Labour Party".

He goes on to say: "The Labour Party that signed up to the Lisbon Treaty, that promised we would not end up in the position we're in, promised a referendum and then welshed on it and just signed up anyway".

The Labour Party, he asserts, "cannot be trusted with Britain's interests in Europe and anyone who is interested in doing anything else than getting behind David Cameron on this issue is making a big mistake".

This is all very well and good, but he neglects to say that Cameron likewise offered a referendum and also welshed on his promise, then relying on the fine print of his promise to justify his actions. 

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It is convenient, in this context, to cite Cameron's promise in The Sun in September 2007, which offered a conditional referendum, but there was another more direct promise, with no caveats. This was on 26 May 2009 in his speech on "Fixing Broken Politics". "A progressive reform agenda", he said, "demands that we redistribute power from the EU to Britain and from judges to the people. We will therefore hold a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty …".

The unalterable fact is that, as we noted at the time, Mr Cameron made an unequivocal promise. And he broke it. He cannot change that, and in so doing he lost any right to claim our trust. Grayling should know better than to ask for it now. 

As much to the point, for the many of us who recognise that the European Union has become the supreme government of the United Kingdom, a warning that a vote for UKIP will let in Labour holds few terrors. It might be desirable to have a Conservative government if one was on offer, but our government is in Brussels. Only when we are rid of that will it matter whether which local party gets into power.

After all these years, though, Grayling and many other senior Conservative politicians still don't really understand this, and what motivates the UKIP voter. Leaving "Europe" aside, they say, a Conservative government would be far better than Labour, and by voting UKIP, you risk letting them in.

But the counter – from an increasing number of people - is that you cannot leave "Europe" aside. Until and unless you deal with the European Union, there is no deal. A vote for the Tories is a vote for Brussels, just as a vote for Labour is a vote for Brussels. There is no substantive difference. "Who cares wins?" we say.

For sure, it is only a relatively small number of people who think that way, but that number is enough to cost the Conservatives the next election. And asking us to give Cameron the benefit of the doubt is not going to cut it. Either he sorts "Europe" or he is history. There is no middle way, and no benefit of the doubt.

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