Thursday, June 03, 2004

The Blessings of UKIP

Love them or hate them, UKIPites have certainly put the EU on the agenda, in a way that the main political parties would prefer to avoid.

But, with "withdrawal" on the agenda, foreign secretary Jack Straw has come storming into the debate with the declaration that withdrawal would be a "unmitigated disaster" for Britain. "It would threaten British jobs, British businesses and British influence in the world. It would put our future prosperity and security at risk," he claimed.

Not missing the opportunity to tilt at the Tories, he then added that the Conservatives' European policy was "rapidly unravelling" in the face of the surge of support for UKIP, nevertheless applauding UKIP's "clear and consistent" position. This was better than the Tories "unconvincing, unsustainable and absurd" stance.

Central to Straw’s attack was an assertion that Michael Howard had been unable to name a single one of the other 24 members who backed his call to renegotiate the CFP, Social Chapter, or Common Foreign and Security Policy. "This would therefore leave him with the grim reality of whether to back down or to withdraw from the EU altogether".

However, Straw’s posturing is thinner than it looks. Michael Howard’s position on the CFP – as set out to the Scottish Conservative Party conference in Dundee click here is that "if necessary we will legislate in Parliament to make it happen". In other words, he is committed to unilateral withdrawal if necessary.

Clearly, what the foreign secretary is trying to do is force Mr Howard to admit to seeking withdrawal, aligning the Conservatives with UKIP and thus countering their attempts to occupy the centre ground.

But the way is now open challenge Straw on whether he believes the EU or Parliament is the supreme authority in the UK. Let us hope that Mr Howard is up to the challenge, and willing to expand the debate into this area. If he does, UKIP will have truly been a blessing in having opened up the discourse.

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