Monday, 24 October 2011
Been here before
It’s ground hog day. Conservatives split on Europe again.
It caused discomfort to Mrs Thatcher, despair for John Major and now it’s here to haunt David Cameron.
In many ways the Prime Minister has only himself to blame. He promised a referendum on the Lisbon treaty and reneged. His excuse was that it had already been passed when he took office. Of course, forming a coalition with the pro-European Liberal Democrats had nothing to do with the change of action.
So having disappointed the rabid little Englanders in his party, they were determined to seek their revenge. The device used was Cameron’s populist gimmick of promising a debate on any petition presented to the Westminster parliament signed by over 100,000 names.
The euro-sceptics set about collecting the names, reached the target, duly presented it to parliament and voila, today’s debate.
Now these debates are only advisory. The government could have shrugged its collective shoulders and done precisely nothing about it, even if the vote was won. But no, in a display of machismo that Prime Ministers are prone too, dear David ups the anti.
He decides to place a three-line whip on his parliamentary party. Anyone disobeying can say goodbye to promotion whilst he’s PM. He’s deployed his heaviest armour. What now if a sizeable numbers of backbenchers disregard the whip?
On the issue itself nothing changes. The vote will be defeated, Labour and Liberal Democrats will see to that. But two things will change. In the first instance Mr Cameron will have a large group of semi-detached Conservatives on his backbenches and his authority over the party will be seriously weakened.
But more fatally, his future prospects will take a turn for the worst if the public see the Conservative party as split. Parties that are seen at war with themselves, seldom prosper.
Quite why the Tories get so hung up about Europe is difficult to grasp. After all it was a Conservative government that took us in.
It has never been an election winner. It is true that when asked in opinion polls a sizeable number of respondents say that they would rather be out of Europe than in.
But, and it is a mighty big but, when asked what they regard as the issue that most concern them, Europe is very low in the pecking order.
Voters are concerned about jobs, health, crime and education. These weigh more heavily with voters than Europe. So whilst voters express negative views about membership of the European union, it ain’t going to be the issue that decides where they put their cross.
Conservatives ought to get real on the issue. With forty per cent of our trade with Europe the priority should be to sort out the Euro debt crisis. It won’t just be Euro zone countries that drown, we’ll sink with them.
Less posturing by our politicians and more application to tackling the real issues would be welcomed. It’s the economy, stupid, not Europe.