Tuesday, July 13, 2004

The elephant in the room

Yesterday evening Michael Howard, the Leader of the Conservative Party, gave the main speech at the Annual Meeting of the Centre for Policy Studies, in which he outlined the party’s policies and even its vision of the sort of Britain he wants to see.

Although Ruth Lea, the Director of CPS said in her own speech that the Centre has in the last year concentrated on three issues, the economy, public services and the European Union, Mr Howard kept to the first two. It seems the Conservative leadership has convinced itself that there is no need to think about the European issue, as people are not interested in it. Unfortunately, that point of view is no longer accurate. More and more people do care about Europe.

Mr Howard’s slogan for the party is “Big people, small government”, a slogan most of us can sympathize with. He talked much of the need for giving choice to all, not just those who happen to be well off; he outlined the astonishing growth of bureaucracy in this country, despite the threats of ever larger cut-backs by the Chancellor.

Britain, as Mr Howard rightly pointed out, has slipped in the competitiveness chart from number five to number fifteen; it is also the slowest growing economy among the major English-speaking country. One cannot help wondering why that is so. The regulation and public sector obsessed government, certainly, but could there be another reason? Could this lack of growth and slippage in competitiveness have anything to do with the fact that Britain is the one major English-speaking country that belongs to the European Union?

The first question one was a bit of a facer. He was asked if he could give a clear message on the Tories’ European policy. The person who asked the question was one of the many thousands of Conservatives who had voted UKIP in the European election because of their clearly enunciated policy on the subject. There was a strong applause after the question and considerably less applause after Mr Howard’s reply.

He said quite firmly that he was not going to say that we must come out of the European Union and explained equally firmly that in the general election the choice will be between a Labour Government who will give everything away and a Conservative one, who will go in there to get various powers back.

This, of course, is the Conservative calculation: that people will not vote UKIP as there is no chance of that party forming a government. And faced with the choice outlined above, they will return to the fold. Alas, it is not so. Enough people may vote UKIP because they feel the Conservatives need to start listening to what the voters want to undermine their chances of a come-back. And the threat of a complete Labour sell-out to the EU is not much of a threat for those who remember similar sell-outs engineered by Tories.

Mr Howard’s policy is to win the referendum (not, actually, a given) and then go to Brussels with a strong hand and renegotiate various matters so that powers will be repatriated. Strong hand or not, many of those powers are inscribed in treaties, which can be changed only unanimously. What Howard’s way does not allow for is the very great likelihood that the renegotiations will fail. What is the fall-back position? What threats will the Conservatives use if they do not get their way?

One thing is certain, it will not be a military threat. On the day that we hear of the MoD spending over £3 million on chairs for its civil servants (as part of a mega-refitting of the Department) while Geoff Hoon prepares to announce the most swingeing cuts in military forces yet, Mr Howard could not give unequivocal assurances that the Conservatives will deal with the matter differently.

What makes Mr Howard think that people will vote Conservative if there is no clear message on Britain’s relationship with the European Union, that is, in effect, this country’s constitutional future and if Prime Minister Howard will, just like Prime Minister Blair, send British troops all over the world, without allocating proper sums for recruitment, training and equipment?

Perhaps, he should finally acknowledge the elephant in the room.

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