Just how close are we to Brexit?

David Cameron can have a united Conservative Party or he can keep Britain in the EU. He will struggle to have both.

David Cameron can have a united Conservative Party or he can keep Britain in the EU. He will struggle to have both

Two years ago next week, David Cameron delivered his Bloomberg speech. He not only pledged the Conservatives to holding an in-out referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union if they win this spring’s general election, he also struck the most defiantly pro-European line of any Tory leader since John Major.

Arguing that “Britain’s national interest is best served in a flexible, adaptable and open European Union”, he vowed that he would “not rest until this debate is won”.

In response to this positive tone, public support for Europe rallied as the diminished ranks of British pro-Europeans, particularly in business, were licensed to be more vocal in making the case for membership.

Indeed, despite the rise in support for UKIP, Cameron’s steady drift to a more Eurosceptic agenda of renegotiation since Bloomberg, and a relentless drum-beat of anti-European hostility in much of the press, it is important to remember that an October 2014 poll conducted by Ipsos Mori showed 56 per cent of voters opting for Britain staying in the EU and 36 per cent for getting out.

Mori have been polling the same question since the 1970s. The October 2014 figure was the highest figure supporting British membership since the early 1990s.

But the volatile state of public opinion, the connection between Europe and the politically charged issue of immigration, and the uncertainties over the outcome of the general election – especially if UKIP put in a strong showing – means the risk of Brexit still remains very real.

Many pro-Europeans have reassured themselves that, if he wins in May, Cameron can pull off the same renegotiation/referendum manoeuvre that Harold Wilson achieved in 1975. However, as I argue in my new book, The Risk of Brexit: Britain and Europe in 2015, there are three crucial differences of circumstance. Each should give pro-Europeans cause for concern.

First, in 1975, all of the press (with the exception of the small-circulation communist Morning Star) supported a yes vote.

The influence of the press has declined since the 1970s, with circulation in sharp decline and the rise of new media, but it still has an agenda-setting capability that the broadcasters tend to follow. Since the late 1980s, the great majority of the British press has not just been Eurosceptic; on Europe, it has been positively malign. Europhobic foreign proprietors, such as Rupert Murdoch, have consistently provided a platform for a generation of centre-right journalists and commentators determined to uphold the Thatcherite flame.

They uphold myths about Margaret Thatcher and Europe, principally that the notion that essence of Thatcherism was a virulent anti- Europeanism that in truth she never pursued for much of her period as prime minister.

Second, in 1975, business support for the UK’s EU membership was crucial.

Surveys demonstrate that business today remains strongly in favour of membership, but there are vociferous exceptions, especially among some hedge fund managers in the City who donate significant amounts to the Conservative party. Sometimes this conveys an impression that the City is anti-Europe, when in fact the overwhelming majority in the City see a crucial dimension of its future success as remaining the vibrant financial centre of Europe’s single market.

As for manufacturing, much is now owned by UK-based foreign companies, who have been reluctant to engage in what they see as domestic politics.

The power of business to make its voice heard was shown in the last few days of the Scottish referendum in September 2014. Yet the business message carries significantly less conviction with the public than two generations ago in the wake of a succession of City scandals and the perceived greed of top business executives. Business views matter, but pro-Europeans have to do better than rely on threats.

Third, in 1975, Harold Wilson had a divided Labour party to contend with, just as David Cameron today has a divided Conservative party; but there were crucial differences.

The politics of managing a divided government party were easier in 1975; Wilson persuaded a clear majority of the cabinet to back his renegotiated terms, but a narrow majority of Labour MPs and a two-to-one majority of the Labour conference opposed them. Wilson handled this division by proposing an ‘agreement to differ’ which allowed individual Labour ministers and party members to campaign against the government’s recommendation. Could Cameron not do the same?

Cameron faces a much more serious problem in maintaining party unity. In 1975, all the electable contenders for the Wilson succession (Wilson was to retire in March 1976) loyally supported his renegotiation strategy: the bulk of opposition came from the traditional left of the party, still then a minority force in the parliamentary Labour party which still retained the sole constitutional right to elect the party leader.

By 2017, if Cameron wins the general election, he will have been prime minister for more than seven years and party leader for more than 12. The manoeuvring for his succession will well and truly have been joined – and the final choice will be made (as Conservative party rules now stand) in a ballot of all party members between the two candidates most favoured by the party’s MPs.

There would be a great temptation for a leading contender (possibly Boris Johnson) to ‘cut and run’ from the party leadership and oppose whatever renegotiation deal Cameron is minded to recommend. For Cameron, this could make the politics of carrying his party with him to support any deal he has concluded far more complex than that faced by Wilson.

There is no doubt that were David Cameron to make a firm recommendation in a referendum for continued membership, this would carry some weight. In an age where politics and politicians are deeply tarnished, Cameron carries more respect as prime minister than any other figure in British politics. Cameron would have influence with undecided and Conservative voters, just as his intervention in the voting reform referendum in May 2011 proved to have a decisive impact.

And his support for our EU membership would almost certainly be backed by the leaders of Labour and the Liberal Democrats, making for a strong cross-party coalition.

But what will be Cameron’s call?

Cameron comes from an old-fashioned school of Conservative pragmatism, which believes that, above all else, it is in the national interest that the Conservative party remains united and in power. But every day it is more and more evident that he cannot achieve this objective and keep Britain in the EU at the same time.

Hardline anti-Europeanism is only of burning concern to a section of the political class. But in a section of the Conservative party, it really does burn.

Roger Liddle is chair of Policy Network. The Risk of Brexit: Britain and Europe in 2015 is published by Rowman & Littlefield in January 2015

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35 Responses to “Just how close are we to Brexit?”

  1. swat

    Nowhere near it; its all a sham, a smokescreen to divert us from the problems facing Britain.
    Dave is not a europhobe, quite theopposite, and he will campaign for staying in. america wants us in; the rest of Europe want us in; only a few fruitcakes wants us out.

  2. AlanGiles

    This festering wound has to be healed once and for all.
    A referendum must take place, and like Harold Wilson in 1975 whoever is PM should allow his ministers to follow their consciences with no comebacks. The vote should be binding and a once only event. Whatever the outcome it must be adhered to all by everyone.

  3. Sandy

    The Swiss have taken the difficult decision to cut loose from the Eurozone. This will hurt their economy in the short term, but they are clearly sure that it will be worth it in the long term.

    The Eurozone, as an economy, is holed below the waterline. The ECB is frantically pumping but it is now inevitable that the bloc will fracture, the currency will evaporate and the people and businesses will suffer. Civil strife it likely and warfare a possibility. The situation is very bad.

    The Swiss had bound their currency to the Euro through a kind of currency peg (a cap). The central bank sold a franc for every one bought. This avoided ‘volatility’ every time there was a panic over the euro when people would frantically stash their money in Switzerland only to withdraw it once the panic subsided. Ditching the cap is a signal that this panic is not expected to subside. The euro is going down and it will be a one way trip.

    The UK has a choice. In supporting the Eurozone, the strength of the Sterling economy could keep it afloat for a little longer. This may stave of recessions in the UK by keeping export markets alive, but would only be possible by sacrificing the UK economy in the longer term.

    Alternatively, buy cutting lose from the great, flawed project of European ‘ever closer union’, the UK could hunker down and try to ride out the storm on the strength of its own currency and economy.

    In other words the UK can pay the price now of insulating itself from the Eurozone as best it can (as Switzerland has done), or buy some time but face economic ruin itself.

    Neither is a good choice, but as the skies darken over Europe it is time to chose the least bad option.

  4. wj

    swat – I resent being called a fruitcake because I believe in democracy.

    The people of this country, and other EU countries, have been sidelined by a political class that ‘knows what’s best for us’ – why were we excluded from having a say on the Lisbon Treaty, and what say will we have on TTIP.

    If this political class seeks to distance the general public from such decisions the general public will react by assuming that voting is indeed a waste of time.

    If the EU wishes the general public to be kept apart from the big decisions such as the LT and TTIP, and that they believe that the technocrats are the best people to sort things out, then why continue with this charade of a would-be democratic process.

  5. JohnRich

    The renegotiation will be a sham. Cameron has always said that he would never campaign to take us out.

    Any referendum will be a fix with the EU spending a fortune on propaganda and the rules set to get a win.

  6. David Pendlebury

    Even if David Cameron did give us the referendum, which I have serious doubts about, I am not completely sure that he would honour an `Out` vote, should it go that way. He is too much a Europhile to be happy with that situation. Unfortunately our politicians have lost the trust of the people, hence the poor voting turn-out these days. Ordinary people seem to be of the opinion that government does as it pleases regardless of the will of it`s people. And many feel that so strongly, that they think any referendum result could be tampered with.

  7. Guest

    The Eurozone is doing better than the UK.

    So you’re saying that things will be worse here, right, as you try and make sure we fall away nastily. There’s no “choice”, austerity’s spoken.

    You want to smash trade to make sure we really fall hard, as you darken the sky, the smoke curls up from your torches…

  8. Guest

    You *are* the political class, the one who lies repeatedly about basic issues like trade and the economy on this, as you say people don’t have a vote, when they do.

    Your anti-Europeans have not won a general election, and you’re getting desperate. It shows. Meanwhile, your party supports TTIP with the exception of ISDS for the NHS, and the opposition to it comes from the European left.

    As you say, you do *not* in fact think we have democracy, calling it a charade, as you try and overthrow Britain’s democracy. Hence, Fruitcake is completely appropriate in this context, since you’re calling for a coup.

  9. Guest

    Keep whining.

  10. Leon Wolfeson

    As Scotland shows, referendums divide and are not in any way final. Moreover, the sort of foreign cash which would pour in – since there’s very lax rules on that for referendums – would cause no end of problems.

  11. Sandy

    “The Eurozone is doing better than the UK” – is it? In what sense?

    “So you’re saying that things will be worse here” – “here” being where? inside the Eurozone, in the UK or elsewhere?

    I personally would prefer that the world had functioning markets and that someone hadn’t decided to hand control of central banks to giant communist space lizards.

  12. Guest

    Economically, plain and simple.

    And ” giant communist space lizards”, right. In reality, of course, Farrage is an arch-capitalist, and hence anti-free market.

  13. Sandy

    The Eurozone is not doing better than the UK economically, on any measure. As far as I am aware no central bank felt it necessary to prop up sterling against their own currency. The SNB only took this extraordinary measure in the first place because the Eurozone was falling far behind them. That they heave given up signals that the don’t expect it to recover, ever.
    I have no idea what a UKIP economic policy would look like. Confused and contradictory no doubt. I hope we never find out.
    Farrage is also a giant space lizard. Just from a different planet.

  14. Brian K

    With regards the broadcasters, they tend to follow the Guardian line (certainly Newsnight gets a lot of it’s stories from there) and to a lesser extent that of the Independent. However your point on the declining influence is still true.

    There are now a range of other ‘influencers’ in the online domain, but their reach is limited.

    The biggest influence will of course be the BBC

  15. Brian K

    I forgot to mention that the biggest friend the ‘inners’ will have is UKIP.

    Lately they’ve stopped talking about EU exit and preferred to chase seats in the HoC by banging on about immigration, but their big failing is that they haven’t developed a viable positive view of the UK outside of the EU, how the referendum can be won and how to overcome the status quo effect.

  16. Guest

    So you’re in complete economic denial, I see.

    And no, YOU don’t want the Eurozone to recover, ever, and yes that’s your policy – confused and contradictory, and you want it hidden. Right.

  17. ForeignRedTory

    As opposed to the foreign cash of Murdoch making the rounds now?
    It is high time to ban all media-ownership by non-Europeans.

  18. ForeignRedTory

    What a hipocrisy! A democratic Europe is to be had by having one single European Parliament, elected by PR, one-man-one-vote for EU Citizens as SOLE source of Authority! Those who oppose this, oppose Democracy!

  19. wj

    Yeh – I seem to remember that – Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer.

    That didn’t end too well, did it?

  20. ForeignRedTory

    A: Godwin!
    B: What is in the heart will be expressed by the tongue, oh follower of Fuhrer Farrage! Exactly the kind of crap one expects from the right wing extremists of ‘kip.
    C: Sense when exactly is One Man One Vote anything but the embodiment of Democracy?

    The Kippers stand exposed as the Fascists they are.

  21. Mike Stallard

    Rod Liddle is one of my favourite journalists. He makes me laugh at every article (well almost) that I read in the Spectator.
    I am, as you may have guessed, in favour of leaving the Unification Church of Europe. I want to keep our common law, our independent judges, our elected government making our law and our Queen and National Anthem. I do not want to have them taken over by Guy Verhofstadt, J-C Juncker or any other unelected, unaccountable and dodgy politician. (All politicians, like all human beings, are dodgy if we can get away with living off other people’s money.)
    On the other hand we do a lot of trade with Europe.
    Ever been to Norway? I do not mean on a government junket or in a travel brochure or TV documentary? I mean really.
    I could not afford a cup of coffee! We were seriously offered a sweater for £70. Even the Sami people were a lot richer than we were.
    May I recommend that we join Norway in the EFTA bloc and leave the “More Europe” consensus and groupthink to get on with it?
    I have been thrown off both Conservative Home and Labour List, but I do try to keep up with both sides of the argument. I honestly cannot see why the Labour Party is not convinced by joining EFTA.

  22. Mike Stallard

    Switzerland is not the answer. Its arrangements with the EU amount to a lot of people on big salaries sitting round a table. Swiss are forced to agree to the ratcheting laws and to accepting freedom of labour when the local people do not want it even after a constitutional referendum.
    Norway is the least worst option: join EFTA : leave the EU.

  23. Mike Stallard

    I totally agree for once. Referenda are not the answer because the EU grandees will simply look the other way if it is wrong and insist on another until we get it “right”.
    We were deliberately lied to under Wilson. I was there canvassing for the EU – which was presented as a Common Market, not as a Federal State.

  24. wj

    1. Godwin – Let’s just shut all argument down

    2. Not in UKIP

    3. One vote, for a selected individual under a closed list, to represent a country that has 1/28 of a say, to be able to impose technocrats on beaten down countries, to make the people liable for the debts of European banks, to force onto countries constitutions that the people have no say on.

    But you get the idea – your idea of democracy is a little bit different than mine.

  25. ForeignRedTory

    1. You have lost, and rightly so. Fail objection is fail.

    2. Yet you follow Fuhrer Farrage in opposing United Europe.Fail objection is fail.

    3. Parliamentarians do not represent countries, but people. Fail objection is fail.

    ‘But you get the idea – your idea of democracy is a little bit different than mine’
    Indeed it is. When you say you want democracy you do not want democracy. In effect, you are just another neo-States Rights fruitjob. Saved your Confederate Money, mate?

  26. wj

    1. No – democracy has lost because you wish to close down opposing views.

    2. Was Tony Benn or Bob Crowe a follower of Fuhrer Far(r)age – they wanted out of the EU. I don’t need to follow anybody – I have my own mind. Do you?

    3. “Parliamentarians” don’t represent me – I don’t want any representation in the EU. How many lives and jobs are you prepared to sacrifice for your little empire. Do you want some of my “Confederate Money” – you may need some if the Germans pull the plug on the

    There – all said without insulting people. It’s easy if you try.

  27. Cole

    What a stupid, irrelevant comment. Still, that’s about the level kippers debate at.

  28. Cole

    Really? Just vecause a bunch of noisy right wingers and newpaper magnates – often foreign – want it.

  29. Leon Wolfeson

    So basically, you’re still whining you lost, as you try and pretend to “agree” with me.

    You didn’t pay attention, quite different from your contention.

  30. Leon Wolfeson

    Ah yes, ban, block, censor. Stop thought, etc.

    Starting a trade war with the rest of the world, too, for that matter.

  31. Guest

    Except you are insulting people – you’re trying to argue for your anti-democratic views, as you indicate that people who are not anti-European don’t have their own minds.

    As you note you don’t pay tax, and say that only your coup can “save” Britain – i.e. smash lives and jobs.

  32. Guest

    You’re confusing your ideology with the EU’s.

  33. Guest

    So, you want to be WORSE off that the Swiss, to give up – for the first time – a large chunk of democracy, to pay the EU for access to *some* of the markets, still losing access to others, etc.

    Norway spends a lot of time and energy lobbying EU countries about things it wants passed.

    But hey, the Swiss will be better off, and you can’t have us be even in that situation!.

  34. AlanGiles

    It’s an old canard that it is only right wingers who want out of the EU. Tony Benn was hardly a right winger, Austin Mitchell isn’t, and it seems that it isn’t just Tories who support UKIP

  35. ForeignRedTory

    Britain entered into a compact for an ever closer Union through a democratic vote. If you disrespect that, you are no democrat. No change to that except through a referendum of ALL Europeans – full stop.

    If that makes you cry, you need to follow Mayor Aboutaleb’s advice, which is to say, bugger off to another location.

    ‘There – all said without insulting people. It’s easy if you try.’
    Why try? Europhobes are a contemptible stain, and deserve zero toleration.

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