Monday, September 15, 2008

Some surprises yet?

Looking beyond Mr Brown's immediate problems, to the next electorally mandated reshuffle general election, when he leads his Party into the fight, developments on the Irish referendum front could have interesting implications for the challenger, David Cameron.

The specific issue is the date of the re-run in Ireland which, by general agreement, is not now going to be held before the June 2009 euro-elections.

There were some suggestions, however, that the autumn of that year could be pencilled in for the second referendum but, according to a report by EU Business, that does not look likely either. Instead, a "senior European official" is saying that "The first viable date at present is 2010."

Given that this would most probably be in the Spring, there arises now the possibility that the referendum could coincide with the general election campaign in the UK, or even follow it.

In the UK, this could elevate the profile of the EU in the campaign which would put Mr Cameron on the spot, focusing attention on his own intentions regarding a UK referendum on the treaty.

Almost certainly, such a focus would be unwelcome by Conservative strategists who have assiduously sought to avoid discussion of the EU, preferring instead to keep voters' attention on the limited range of domestic issues that remain within the power of the London government to control.

By then, other EU-related matters could be intruding on national politics. In the spring of 2010, we will have been through two winters, both of which may well be colder than we have experienced recently, with voters feeling the full force of the increased energy prices – which may well have risen further.

Despite the reluctance of the Conservatives to deal with this particular issue, therefore, we could well find energy prices feature prominently in the election campaign, an issue that could well broaden out to include more general concerns about security of supply.

In attempting to argue for a coherent policy, Cameron and his team will immediately bump up against the constraints imposed by EU policy, rendering any promises he may wish to make about keeping energy prices down difficult to sustain.

Not least, less then two years into his administration (if he succeeds at the election), he will be confronted by the full implementation of the EU's emission trading scheme, the effect of which could be to double electricity prices. Cameron, hampered by his reluctance to take on EU issues full-frontal, and his greenie credentials, will find it hard to argue in advance against this measure and will want to avoid committing himself to a confrontation with the EU on green policy.

On the other hand, Brown's energy secretary, John Hutton, has demonstrated recently that he is prepared, in principle, to confront EU greenery, putting energy security above that of climate change in government priorities.

With Cameron on the back foot over the constitutional Lisbon treaty referendum, an embattled Gordon Brown – with absolutely nothing to lose – could play the "Europe" card with devastating effect, positioning Labour as the champions of the national interest against the EU, puncturing the Conservative eurosceptic credentials.

Rather than the electoral meltdown that so many pundits are so confidently predicting, Brown through this means could salvage enough seats to remain in office as opposition leader, spearheading the fightback against the new, inexperienced leader.

All this could of course be complete moonshine, with Brown crashing and burning in spectacular style, dragging the Labour Party down with him. It would be unwise, however, to underestimate the tenacity of a cornered rat prime minister. Brown may have some surprises for us yet.