Can the people beat the politicians? That is the question starting to emerge as the battle lines are drawn for the forthcoming referendum on Britain’s European destiny.
Well, not all the people and not all the politicians. But as the Sunday papers reported and as Nigel Farage suggested in his Sunday Politics interview on BBC television, this is beginning to shape up as a re-run of David versus Goliath.
Farage put it like this: “I suspect that most senior politicians inside the Conservative Party will put their careers before their conscience and will back the Prime Minister’s position. But does that matter? That’s the real question. And I’m beginning to see this referendum actually as being the people versus the politicians. It might not matter.”
Goliath is certainly mustering his forces. Former Minister Nick Herbert, ironically a man who campaigned against scrapping the pound 15 years ago, has formed a new pressure group, Conservatives for Reform in Europe, to support Mr Cameron’s fabled renegotiation of our terms of membership and to encourage Conservative members and voters to do just that. No doubt, he will be rewarded in a post-referendum reshuffle if things work out as planned.
Cameron’s also appears to be making headway with his so-called reform agenda with the press reporting that he is intent on conjuring up rabbits from the hat, over and above the limited goals he has already set himself: protecting the City and British business from Eurozone bullying, cutting red tape, fending off the European superstate and controlling immigration by reducing the “pull” factor of generous welfare benefits for EU immigrants.
Don’t get too excited, but on top of that we may be offered “associate membership status” to underline our “independence” from the Eurozone core of countries, the right to apply an emergency brake on EU migration to Britain if our hospitals or schools are on the brink of collapse, and a change in the law to assert the sovereignty of Parliament and the power of our courts to ignore the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights.
Forget, for a moment, whether any of these “concessions” amount to a row of beans. What matters if whether they can be folded into an emerging narrative in which the Prime Minister obtains tangible reforms protecting British interests and the Leave campaign can be painted as putting the country’s economic and national security at risk. To use the shorthand, Cameron is working up “Project Fear” while his opponents, bar Farage and a few brave souls, sulk in their tents.
The Ukip leader, who has clearly spent a lot of time encouraging Tory Eurosceptics to come out – literally – as declared opponents of staying in the EU is evidently finding recruitment difficult. As Adam Boulton of Sky Television observed in his Sunday Times column, it is “oddly quiet on the Brexit front as Tory sceptics stay low”.
At Cabinet level, only Chris Grayling has gently rocked the boat, while Michael Gove is now being counted in the Yes camp. Boris Johnson has said he is no “outer”. Meanwhile, Theresa May sits on the fence. Given her authority as Home Secretary, if she were to dismiss Cameron’s benefits tinkering as likely to have no impact on immigration levels – the public’s chief concern – she would give the Leave campaign a huge boost. But like the rest of her Cabinet colleagues with supposedly Eurosceptic sympathies, she is lying low.
Hence Farage’s characterisation of the battle as the people versus the politicians. On one side of the ledger, we have the Prime Minister, the Chancellor, the Foreign Secretary, most of the Cabinet and all our former Prime Ministers (Brown, Blair, Major) – in short a fair chunk of the political establishment. We have the Labour Party, although its eccentric leader still regards the EU as a capitalist plot, most of the unions and big business. You can chuck in Nick Clegg and what’s left of the Liberals as well. Then there is the BBC and most of the leftish public sector.
Who is going to stop them? There’s Farage and Ukip’s 4 million votes (though you need 16 million votes to win this); most Tory Party members and a lot of their voters; quite a lot of Tory MPs, though one wonders how brave they will prove if they think Dave is on course for victory and they are on course for a life in the political wilderness if they back the wrong side; and finally, and depressingly, a handful of brave souls like Kate Hoey from Labour ranks. Our press is pretty Eurosceptic but only the Daily Express is committed to Out.
It hardly looks like a fair fight. Yet the latest poll for The Mail on Sunday put the Brexit camp 6 points ahead, primarily because of the Paris massacre, the Cologne sex attacks and the deepening migrant crisis. But drill down into the numbers and there is a surprising level of support for Cameron’s reform agenda. If he can pull off a deal at the February 19 Brussels summit, possibly with added rabbits, he might find the numbers move decisively in his direction.
Back to Farage’s question. Are the British people going to defy their political and establishment masters and vote to quit Europe? One country that has done this – and continues to do so – is Norway. Twice its people have voted No to joining the EU in defiance of their ruling class and currently opposition to Brussels is running at 72 per cent. But one doubts that the British are quite as independent minded as the children of the Vikings.
The Out campaign badly needs the endorsement and leadership of heavyweight Tory politicians. And time is running out.