ANDREW ALEXANDER: Rebels, ploys and a matter of life and death
David Cameron is running out of ploys to make backbench Tories feel part of the Government machine
Somehow, though we don’t yet know how, David Cameron will wriggle out of his commitment to a proper EU referendum in the next Parliament — assuming he gets back into power.
That is now the general view not just among the public but, more ominously, within the Tory Party itself. Even the backbenchers he has sought to appease by making them ‘advisers’ to the Government are in a rebellious mood.?
He is running out of ploys to make backbench Tories feel part of the Government machine. The whips are very worried — that is to say, those whips who are not already EU sceptics themselves.
In theory, the election to the European Parliament in May will clear up a lot of confusion about where the public stands. Actually, it may make it worse for the Government.
If Ukip does well in elections which might have been tailor-made for that party — and opinion polls suggest it will — the Tory leadership will have to deal with some very awkward backbench Conservative MPs. They will want to make their own deals with their local branches of Ukip, constituency by constituency. It will be very tough for the party managers.
An MP who faces the loss of his seat is a very difficult man or woman to discipline. Following the party line is supposed to improve the prospects of winning — not losing — one’s seat.?
Matters are not helped by the number of local party officials who threaten to go over to Ukip, or who have already made that pilgrimage.
And all this is against a background of widening mistrust by voters of politicians in general. The Tory Party leadership hopes that this mistrust will be vented on Ukip and cut it down to size. It seems unlikely.
The Ukip leadership, meanwhile, has done remarkably well in its cohesion. The media managed to find the oddball here and there in the membership’s ranks — but that can be said of all political parties. There is nothing to get excited about yet.
The cry that the General Election will turn on the state of the economy is much less true than it used to be. The sad fact is that when the next election comes, the country will still be heavily in the red and the Government well behind its original promises about how rapidly it would bring down the nation’s debts.
And that mistrust factor keeps intruding. Ukip claims that the current generation of politicians has been corrupted by office, which is all too well in line with the average elector’s view.
The Office for Budget Responsibility is a new factor in the debate. This organisation was brought into being by Chancellor George Osborne in 2010, in the hope that it would, among other things, diminish a widespread mistrust of official forecasts.
So Mr Osborne sought out the most distinguished and impressive economists he could find to make their predictions. It is currently arguing that immigration is good for the economy.
The classical school of economists would agree that, in a genuinely free market, immigration would certainly help. But we do not have that sort of economy: we have a minimum wage system, and all the paraphernalia of intense regulation (much of it from the EU).
Brussels knows that if we ended up with a referendum which said we wanted to leave the European Union, that would be the death-knell of the EU. It would be seen not just as failing to unite Europe but of splitting it apart
The OBR produces a vast array of charts and graphs at Budget time, and again for the Autumn Statement. One cannot fail to be impressed by the thoroughness of it all.?
This is matched by the publication thereafter of another massive array of charts and graphs explaining why their forecast was wrong — as it invariably is.
Besides, immigration is not just a matter of economics. The OBR asserts that the social effects of immigration are not within its terms of reference, which may well be true.?
But to argue that immigration is helpful economically, and to say nothing else, is to evade a whole series of questions about what nationality and citizenship mean.
The other half of Cameron’s (mistrusted) promise is that he will embark on tough negotiations with Brussels to repatriate the numerous powers taken away from Westminster.?
Well, he might manage to bring back a power or two, but not much that is serious.
Brussels knows that if the Cameron plan ended up with a referendum which said we wanted to leave the European Union, that would be the death-knell of the EU. It would be seen not just as failing to unite Europe but of splitting it apart.
Where does Labour stand on this life-and-death issue? Curiously, it has yet to decide. It will need to stop dithering and make up its mind soon.
- This is the last column I shall be writing for the Daily Mail. I would like to thank readers for their innumerable emails and letters, some of which have greatly added to my understanding of the issues I have been writing about.
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