Monday, March 28, 2005

The death of politics

It has not entirely escaped notice that Michael Howard’s ruthless deselection of Howard Flight, for deviating from the party line on public spending, is not matched by equivalent action against those Tory MPs who depart from the line on the European Union.

This, while Flight is consigned to political obscurity, the likes of Kenneth Clarke, who has consistently opposed the party line on the EU constitution, and David Curry, who openly trashed the party policy on repatriating the Common Fisheries Policy – seem to bear charmed lives.

In this context, neither has it escaped notice that Flight was a principled Eurosceptic and it is almost certain that he will be replaced with a Central Office "moderniser" who will hold no strong views on "Europe" but will tend towards the Howard line of "reform" and "renegotiation".

But the disparity of treatment has sent shockwaves through the band of Tory Eurosceptics, some of whom are actively toning down what were planned to be robust, anti-EU election addresses, and revising their local campaigns, for fear that Campbell's spies might be abroad, ready to cause trouble between them and Central Office.

All of this suggests that Tory activity on "Europe" will be extremely muted during the general election campaign, with candidates reluctant to engage on the issue, avoiding engagement whenever possible. If UKIP had its act together, it would find it had a more than usually clear field on the issue.

But it also lends a further sense of unreality to the campaign, which will be fought hard on extremely narrow domestic issues, leaving the "elephant in the room" disregarded. Thus, the general election takes on the aspect of a phoney war, with activists fully aware that the real battle will start – not finish – with the final parliamentary declarations.

From a personal perspective as a confirmed "election junkie" – having taken an active part in the last three general elections, in two of them as a candidate – I cannot recall ever having been less interested in the outcome of an election, a sentiment I know to be shared by many others. Of far more interest is the 29 May French referendum and, beyond that, the UK referendum, if indeed it materialises.

Thus does the baleful influence of the European Union extend its writ, deadening what should be the most vibrant political event on the calendar. In yet another way, therefore, the "project" has become the death of politics.

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