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Tuesday, February 02, 2016 

Cameron's gamble with everyone else's chips.

David Cameron, Matthew d'Anconservative wrote only yesterday, is "like almost every Tory of his generation, a Eurosceptic to his fingertips".  This Eurosceptic to his fingertips, a leader who has at every turn given in to the demands of his backbenchers, has now been served up what can at best be described as very thin gruel in the form of European Council President Donald Tusk's proposed deal on renegotiation.  "Hand on heart", Dave insisted, the deal fulfils the promises made in the Conservative party manifesto.  Presumably with hand still on heart, he also said that if Britain wasn't an EU member and these were the terms on offer to join, he would do so.

Cameron is not and has never been a Eurosceptic.  Above everything else, Cameron has always been an opportunist.  Combined with his belief that through the sheer force of his will and combined animal magnetism he can achieve practically anything, he has made every appearance of being a Eurosceptic while never for a second believing the nonsense spouted by the more virulent within his party.  His move to leave the EPP grouping in the European parliament?  Utterly meaningless and incomprehensible to anyone outside the Tory party, but it helped convinced those uncertain about him that he was truly one of them.  Likewise, his much garlanded wielding of the veto back in 2011 achieved precisely nothing, other than help soothe the tendency within the Tories that regarded his failure to win the 2010 election and necessary coalition with the Lib Dems as little short of treachery.

And yet, each time he refused to call the bluff of his restive MPs, it encouraged them to push for something else.  Finally, in 2013, Cameron gave them what they had long demanded, a referendum on our membership of the EU.  As has been comprehensively proved since, Cameron has never thought for one second that Britain would be better off out.  Cameron is many things, but he's not an idiot.  For every negative, there is a positive. More than anything else, the idea that Britain will somehow manage to get a better deal on exit than either Norway or Switzerland managed having never been members is just as fanciful as the SNP's claim that once independence was won, the rUK would delight in the necessary negotiations on how to share the pound and split oil revenue etc etc.

Whether Cameron honestly believed he would win the majority necessary to hold the referendum we don't know.  Still, once achieved he had to push on, knowing full well that short of bringing back the head of Jean-Claude Juncker on a silver platter the Eurosceptics in his party would moan incessantly about how feeble his renegotiation was.  He did so also knowing full well that the the rest of the EU, dealing with a refugee crisis Cameron refuses to lift a finger to help with over, was not for so much as a second going to offer anything like the concessions on immigration and benefits that have become the proxy for public debate on the EU.

To give Cameron some credit, he has got something that didn't look to be on offer until very recently.  The emergency brake, allowing for the restricting of in-work benefits to EU migrants is roughly analogous to the ban promised in the Tory manifesto.  No one thought for a minute that Cameron would get four years, and while he hasn't quite got that, he's got something similar, albeit tempered by how migrants will get "gradual" access to in-work benefits once they've been paying into the system, probably after a couple of years.  Likewise, on the sending of child benefit to children back in their home countries, he hasn't got an outright prohibition but has won a concession that will mean the benefit will be paid most likely at the same rate as it would be if the claimant was doing so back home.  On fairness if nothing else that passes muster.

Except, of course, this has been a phony war from the beginning.  Cameron and the Tories know that benefits are not a draw for migrants; they come for the jobs and the wages, not to claim.  Every possible effort has been made to prove that benefits are a pull factor for migrants both legal and illegal, and not once has anything approaching conclusive evidence been turned up.  Cameron knew the rest of the EU would never agree to a "brake" on the free movement of labour, and so was reduced to instead attempting to convince the public into believing that rather than it being down to how we were one of only three EU nations that opened our borders in 2005 without restrictions, or to how the British economy has recovered faster than most other EU states post-2008, it's all been about tax credits.  This went alongside the attempt to restrict tax credits overall, since abandoned, meant to be made up for part by the increase in the minimum wage.  Evidence for the minimum wage being a draw is far higher than it is for benefits, so if the aim has partly been to reduce net levels of migration, it's a far bet Cameron's renegotiation will achieve little other than saving the relatively slight amounts currently claimed back in tax credits.

Most of the other concessions, including the "red card" national parliaments could wield against proposed new EU laws if 55% vote against, are relatively minor or were always going to happen when the rest of the EU undoubtedly wants Britain to stay.  Judged against the letter sent to Tusk that started this process, Cameron has got most of what he wanted.  Then again, what he wanted has no connection whatsoever with the "full-on treaty change" or fundamental reworking of our relationship with the EU once promised, and which the more naive Tory backbenchers thought they might get.  The others, those who were always going to treat whatever was served up as not good enough, have a deal they can be justifiably dismissive of.

As for the public, excepting the relative few who go along with the UKIP narrative on loss of sovereignty and the eleventy trillion pounds sent to Brussels every day, most will care only about the impact it has on migration.  Which will be next to none.  To judge by the response to the deal, which has been tepid to say the least, most quite rightly don't give a stuff about the EU.  It's there, it does things, it occasionally impacts on us, but for most it means little other than open borders and free movement of labour, for better, for worse, and that itself is threatened by the aforementioned refugee crisis.  Trying to get people who weren't bothered enough to vote in the general election to interest themselves in a referendum on something relatively arcane and on a day in high summer, should it take place on the "preferred" date of 23rd of June, is going to prove far more challenging than many seem to think.

Which only reinforces the view that Cameron and his relatively slight band of fellow Tories who don't like the EU much but prefer it to the alternative have backed themselves into a corner out of pitiful weakness, and now have to sell their gruel to the country.  Perhaps the thinking is that the engaged, the pro-Europeans versus the Eurosceptics will balance themselves out, leaving Project Fear 2.0 to work its magic on those undecided and who can be bothered to interest themselves.  Perhaps, as Lord Ashcroft's polling and research suggests, Cameron himself can win enough people over by his leading the remain campaign.  Perhaps the fact that the leave campaigners themselves seem to accept they cannot win on immigration alone, and so will have to put their otherwise easily countered and pretty feeble arguments out for public consumption, made by politicians and business leaders no one has much affection for, will count against them.

From this remove, with no solution in sight to the refugee crisis, much that can happen between now and June, and with the voter coalition he formed to win the election liable to be against him on this occasion, Cameron's great gamble looks just as mad and as hostage to fortune as it did three years.  The only real advantage he has, as then, is himself.  If it proves to not be enough, with all it will set in motion, a likely second Scottish independence referendum, inevitable resignation and a country ever more uncertain of its true place in the world, will it have been worth it?

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You could say, on the oter hand, it was the EU and it's extra top layer of government causing Cameron many problems to begin with.

Had Britain been out (or had itself a far more liberated experience across the treaties) then Britain could rule itself enough for David Cameron to rule as he pleases on immigration.

Though on the other other hand, if he is so madly pro-EU, a more independent Britain could be doing a lot of what it wants in sympathy anyway. We have a record of sympathy anyway.

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