Sunday, August 05, 2007

Herding cats

In a long speculative piece on the possibility of Gordon Brown going for an early election, The Sunday Times cites an unnamed Labour minister ruling out an early poll “because of the bubbling row over whether the government should concede a referendum on the EU constitution”.

The (female) minister is citing as saying: "Gordon will want some time between the potential row over Europe and the general election … Otherwise the election will become a referendum on the treaty and play right into the Tories' hands."

This makes a telling counterpoint to the leader in The Sunday Telegraph which counsels tells the Conservative Party:

Target Number One must be the Labour Party's manifesto pledge to call a referendum on the new EU constitution (or "Treaty" as they would have us believe it is). Mr Brown is squirming out of this promise. If Mr Cameron were to lead a decisive attack on the Prime Minister on this issue, he would find that he was leading an army not just of card-carrying Conservatives. And an army on the advance would find its numbers increasing rapidly.
However, the problem with that strategy is that, should he go for an early election, Brown will do so on a new manifesto – his own - which would not include a pledge to offer a referendum, in which case such a narrowly focused attack would have a limited effect. To make a mark, Cameron would have to offer a referendum and then condemn the treaty constitution directly, in order to justify his stance.

What price therefore, the advice from Matthew d'Ancona, who approves of Cameron fighting the issue but suggests he should "barely mention Europe itself." Instead, he writes, the campaign should "be all about trust and consultation." He continues:

Do Mr Brown and his Europe Minister, Jim Murphy, seriously expect the public to believe that the new treaty and its predecessor are, as Mr Murphy said last week, "entirely different" when almost every other protagonist in the deliberations across Europe declares that they are almost identical? And how does the PM reconcile his new taste for consultation, citizens' juries, a "national conversation" and what he described at the UN last week as "people power", with the decision to deny the public a say on this EU treaty?

To ask such questions, Mr Cameron does not have to wrap himself in the Union flag, or resort to the sort of blood-curdling Eurosceptic language that landed William Hague in such trouble when he was leader. He simply needs to press Mr Brown to live up to his own declared standards. There is, as one Labour Privy Councillor admitted to me, "still huge emotion waiting to be tapped on the referendum issue". It only needs to be tapped correctly. Nor will Mr Cameron necessarily get his way: the harrying is all, the relentless campaign to persuade the public that something fishy is going on.
This advice seems inconsistent, even in its own terms. How can a campaign "to persuade the public that something fishy is going on" succeed if the dreaded E-word is barely mentioned? Surely Cameron would have to admit that he was contesting an EU treaty, and have to discuss some of its contents?

What d'Ancona does, though, is demonstrate the view taken of the treaty constitution by some Tories – the faction which sees in the fight only tactical advantage, without any commitment to win: “The harrying is all”, says d'Ancona.

That other Tories are in the fight to win, while others are actively opposed to Cameron fighting at all, points up the range of divisions within just the Conservative Party on this issue. And that rather confounds Paul Sykes who is reported in The Telegraph as calling for "unity in EU referendum fight". He wants all parties to unite in a campaign to force Gordon Brown to hold a referendum.

Sykes stresses that, "Back in the Nineties most of the various anti-EU groups united to form a common front against a common enemy - the single currency." He recalls that the campaign was deliberately non-party-political, it used some of the biggest names in showbusiness to get the message across to the public and it forced the issue to the top of the media agenda.

Thus Sykes wants all Eurosceptic groups, including Open Europe to join with politicians from all parties and captains of industry. "We need to put our petty divisions to one side and to put the great theological debates on hold. What unites us is much, much more than that which divides us," he says.

But, if the Tories themselves are not united, it is hard to see how they can form a united front with others. Then, in practical terms, you have to ask whether the Tories would work with UKIP (and vice versa). Would the Freedom Association, to name but one organisation, follow the Tory Lead? Would UKIP work with BNP (which is a formidable force in certain areas of the country)?

Altogether, this is a nice idea but, I suspect, like ruling the Conservative Party, trying to get Eurosceptics to work together is like trying to herd cats. In fact, pussies are relatively tame compared with that lot.


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