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Of lions and donkeys

Posted by Richard Thursday, November 18, 2004

In a fascinating ICM poll published by the Guardian today, no less than 49 percent of Conservative Party members are now in favour of Britain pulling out of the European Union. An unsurprising 87 would vote against joining the euro.

This certainly accords with my own personal impressions of the state of the Party, where the constituency members are often far more Eurosceptic than their MPs.

Mr Howard, therefore, is rather on the spot. He is ruling over a badly divided party, where his MPs generally remain supportive of membership of the EU, with the grass roots increasingly opposed to it.

All of this is against the background of the Conservatives continuing to lose ground in the polls, with regular monthly Guardian/ICM poll of the wider electorate showing Labour on 38 percent, eight points ahead of the Conservatives, the biggest gap on the Guardian/ICM series since May 2003. This would to see Blair returned with a Commons majority of more than 120.

Possibly, with three party politics becoming the norm, and interference from UKIP – if it can ever get its act together – we could also see net gains for the Lib-Dims, as they hoover up the "wimp" anti-war vote, leaving the Tories with an overall loss.

Certainly, Howard is not proving to be an electoral asset, with his popularity continuing to slide. Only 33 percent of the country think he is doing a good job compared with 41 percent who rate Blair's performance as satisfactory. Even among his own supporters his ratings are not as good as the prime minister's, with 30 percent of Tory voters dissatisfied with the job he is doing, compared with 17 percent of Labour voters.

Soundings from the "grass roots" suggest that "Europe" is the root cause of dissatisfaction amongst Conservative party activists and this issue has contributed to the inertia in the wider party.

Policy wonks are all too aware that many the issue on which the party must make a stand are so constrained by the EU that there is no scope for carving a distinctive niche. More and more, they are constrained to a limited number of "safe" issues, where EU involvement is minimal, which makes it impossible to open up "clear blue water" between Labour and the Lib-Dims.

Before it can even begin to come to terms with the nation as a whole, therefore, the party is going to have to come to terms with its own members, and recognise that the only real "blue water" that exists in the political spectrum is in fact "Europe".

What also must be remembered is that the hard-line Euroscepticism in the party comes from the grass roots, without any political leadership from the top. Howard, therefore, is misjudging the mood and his lukewarm, grudging moves to accommodate his own activists is surely reflected in his lack of popularity.

Also, it must be said, the "Vote No" campaign, with its very close links to the leadership of the Tory party has also misjudged the mood, with its vacuous "Yes to Europe" stance. Conventional wisdom might caution against too hard a stance against the EU but the impression is that "Vote No", like the Tory grandees, are out of touch with a hardening public sentiment.

In a different context, we seem to be repeating history, with ordinary people having more fortitude than their leaders – do we see again lions being lead by donkeys?