Earthquake or not, British politics has certainly undergone a seismic change
over the past few weeks. Familiar landmarks have vanished, fresh features
emerged, and the outlook has fundamentally changed.
Let’s start with an intrusion into private grief, and take a long look at the
Liberal Democrats. It always seemed likely that they would pay a heavy price
for Nick Clegg’s honourable decision to enter into coalition with the
Conservatives after the 2010 general election. His party now stands at
approximately 7 per cent in the opinion polls, down from 20 per cent and one
point higher than its worst rating in history. Jeremy Thorpe’s Liberal Party
boasted comparable figures in the mid-Seventies, when there were half a
dozen Liberals in Parliament, all of them at each other’s throats.
Yesterday’s resignation by Matthew Oakeshott, a gossipy lightweight who has
been spreading poison around Westminster for years, suggests that the Lib
Dems are reverting very fast to their customary irrelevance. Lord
Oakeshott’s decision to stand down has reopened the long-standing division
between the socialist Left and the liberal Right of the party. Much the best
course of action for the Lib Dems is to stick blindly with their leader into
the next election. Any other course of action will provoke annihilation.
Staying the course with Clegg merely means disaster.
It looks possible that the party will split after 2015, the majority joining
some kind of alliance with Ed Miliband’s Labour, and a rump remaining
independent, perhaps a handful joining forces with the Tories. I hope that
Nick Clegg never comes to regret his patriotic decision to join forces with
David Cameron. It was the right thing to do.
In any case, it is Paddy Ashdown rather than Nick Clegg who bears the main
responsibly for his party’s disastrous predicament. He more than anyone else
was responsible for the Lib Dem’s historic error: the fatal decision to
become the apologists for the European Union establishment. Had Ashdown
mapped the opposite trajectory, the Lib Dems might now be on the verge of
outright power rather than near-total collapse – and Ukip would not exist.
We now come to the second change in the landscape. Ed Miliband is paying the
inevitable price for that unforced error made three months ago, when he
sided with the European elite and ruled out a referendum. The Labour leader
is by no means finished, and will have one final chance to rescue his
damaged leadership at this autumn’s party conference in Manchester. But he
is weakened and one vital factor has changed. For the past three years Mr
Miliband has looked the probable prime minister after the general election.
This is no longer the case. It remains impossible to call the result with
confidence, but the momentum is now with David Cameron and his Conservative
Mr Miliband still does not begin to understand the nature of his problem,
judging from Tuesday’s decision about Great Grimsby. This insular, North Sea
port is a leading Ukip target. Unfortunately for Labour, its uncouth local
MP, Austin Mitchell, is standing down. Politically incorrect Mitchell is one
of a tiny number of Eurosceptic Labour MPs. Miliband’s reaction? Slap on an
all-women shortlist. Perhaps, for obscure reasons of his own, Miliband wants
Ukip to win.
Meanwhile Nigel Farage, the cause of all the mayhem, is not as strong as he
looks. Next week’s by-election at Newark offers the opportunity for another
show of strength, but thereafter trouble looms. Ukip stands at 17 per cent
in the polls, but will do well to score 7 per cent in the general election.
It will be a miracle if it wins more than a couple of parliamentary seats,
more likely none at all. Suddenly the field is wide open for David Cameron.
The Prime Minister has been handed a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. He can
put himself at the head not just of the British but also the wider European
movement for political and economic reform. This is because it is quite
impossible that Marine Le Pen in France (the victory of this anti-Semite was
deeply shocking in a country that considers itself the home of the European
Enlightenment), Nigel Farage in Britain or any of the other populist leaders
who have suddenly emerged in continental Europe can force through change.
All these leaders certainly possess legitimacy because all of them have
managed to articulate a deep popular rejection of the corruption, arrogance
and elitism of the European project. But they want to burn the system – and
over time and given renewed economic collapse, they may yet succeed. Only Mr
Cameron, however, can do this from the inside. He can channel and articulate
last week’s anger, then press for historic change. He has a chance to place
himself at the head of a movement to halt the European Union steam-roller,
turn it around – then reconceptualise Europe as a free-trade area rather
than an incipient nation state.
This means tackling the scandal of the Common Agricultural Policy, reclaiming
fishing rights and demanding an end to the culture of corruption that has
prevented auditors from giving the European Union a clean bill of health for
19 years. Above all, Mr Cameron can insist on the treaty change that will
reverse the doctrine of “ever closer union” and at last return powers to
To his enormous credit, the Prime Minister is the sole front-rank European
national leader with the credentials to pursue these reforms. As Boris
Johnson noted here on Monday: “There is only one government in Europe that
has been campaigning solidly for the renegotiation that is needed, and that
is David Cameron and the Conservative-led Coalition.”
Challenging European leaders in this way goes against the Prime Minister’s
fundamental nature. At heart, he is a governing-class politician who prefers
conciliation to confrontation, and the use of charm in private to public
abuse. But the time for these tactics is over, so Mr Cameron will need to
change his nature, and take one very serious step which he has so far
resisted. He must make plain to his European partners that if he does not
get what he wants in the impending negotiations, then he is prepared to
recommend withdrawal from the EU in the referendum on British membership.
Such a threat would horrify the Foreign Office and terrify the Prime
Minister’s Downing Street advisers. It would run counter to the way that
every prime minister has done business with Europe since Thatcher. But it
would send out the message that Britain is deadly serious.
Last week’s elections had one hero, Nigel Farage; one martyr, Nick Clegg; one
victim, Ed Miliband; and one winner, in the shape of David Cameron. The
Prime Minister has the opportunity not just to mend Britain’s fractured
relationship with Europe, but also to save the European Union itself.
It’s an approach that will help at the next election. Tory candidates would be
able to tell voters on the doorstep that Labour is the party of Europe, and
that only the Conservatives can offer a referendum. They will also be able
to point out the unfortunate paradox that a vote for Farage is a vote for
Miliband – and therefore a vote for the broken, illegitimate and discredited
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