I’m too busy steering the ship
“Never mind the lifeboats”. This seems to be William Hague’s approach to the EU crisis, as I Tweeted earlier today. Instead of seeing a radical change in our relationship with the EU as essential to our salvation as a nation, he sees it instead as a distraction from the key task of helping the EU resolve its euro-crisis, which he and Osborne see as critical for Britain’s economic performance.
So let me give him the bad news. The euro problem cannot be solved, or at least not without the one thing that EU leaders are unable to face, and unable to deliver — a complete redesign (or indeed abandonment) of the euro project. As I wrote in a recent blog, some Europhiles seem to think that the only problems are over-borrowing (and in the case of Greece, mendacity).
But the real problem is the inevitable divergence between the economies (and unit labour costs) of Greece and Germany. Even if they could construct a bail-out that would endure for a few years (rather than the few weeks, or days, that recent attempts have managed), the problems would come back as divergence continued. Failure is built into the structure of the Single Currency. Rather than seeking to shore up the project, we should be dismantling it.
Hague’s policy means that he is missing perhaps the best opportunity we have ever had to change the terms of trade with the EU. On the one hand, public opinion is decisively in favour of change. On the other, EU leaders are in a poor position to argue. But by adopting a policy of masterly inactivity, we risk allowing the window of opportunity to close.
He also takes another, equally serious risk. Politicians are already mistrusted by the public. We have a situation where all three political parties made manifesto promises of an EU referendum, yet all three will whip against a referendum on Monday. This is poisonous and corrosive. Of course party apparatchiks will quibble that the manifesto promises related to the Lisbon Treaty rather than the EU itself (although our Coalition partners the Lib-Dems explicitly resiled from the Lisbon commitment in favour of an In/Out referendum — and removed the In/Out commitment from their web-site only last week). But so far as the general public are concerned, an EU referendum is an EU referendum — for which Cameron famously gave his “cast-iron guarantee”, never made good.
It is a bizarre irony that Monday’s debate and vote arise because of an initiative designed to increase democratic accountability — the e-petition with 100,000 signatures. This is only the second to one to come before the House. So first we ask the people for their views, and then we put in place a three-line-whip against them. What will this do to public trust in the political process?
In his Telegraph article on Saturday, Hague insists that “It (an In/Out EU referendum) was not part of the manifesto on which Conservative MPs were elected, nor part of the Coalition agreement”. Thanks William. It’s a good debating point, but it won’t wash on the doorstep.
In his article yesterday, Lord Tebbit pointed out that by whipping against a referendum, the Conservative Party will alienate not only the public but large numbers of its own members and activists. He adds, correctly, that the only beneficiaries of this betrayal by the three main parties will be UKIP. UKIP came second in the euro-elections of 2009, and hope to come first in 2014. At this rate, that’s not an unrealistic plan.
I used to hold Hague in high regard as a principled euro-sceptic, and I believed that in government he would take decisive action on the EU issue. Instead, he illustrates Dan Hannan’s first law of politics — put a party into government, and its eurosceptic ambitions evaporate like dew in the sunshine. Hague himself created the telling metaphor of the eurozone — a burning building with the doors locked. The same metaphor fits the EU, which was in long-term relative economic decline even before the euro-crisis delivered the coup-de-grace. But in the burning building of the EU, at least we have a key. The problem is that Cameron and Hague refuse to contemplate using it.
So pick your metaphor. We’re on the Titanic but we won’t use the lifeboat. We’re in a burning building but we won’t open the door. Either way, Cameron and Hague are embarked on a course which is bad for Britain, and disastrous for the Party.