Westminster was stunned on Friday when Douglas Carswell left the Tories to join UKIP, resigned his seat, and triggered a by-election. And I must admit I was stunned this morning when I saw the headline in the Mail: SHOCK POLL: CAMERON FACES UKIP BY-ELECTION BLOODBATH: Farage’s 44-point lead over Tories. Forty four points. Almost too good to be true.
It seems there’s a groundswell of support for UKIP, especially in the south-east, and in Clacton this effect is reinforced by a very strong personal following for Douglas. He deserves that support, because in standing down and triggering a by-election, he has been both courageous and honourable. Those Tories who have accused him of vain posturing and conceit are beneath contempt. Many MPs in the circumstances would have said “The general election is pretty soon, so we’ll let it ride”. Douglas did the decent thing and sought a new mandate as a UKIP MP.
The Tory reaction has been predictable, if heavily orchestrated after the Tory Whips’ phone-round. They’re saying that only the Conservatives can deliver an EU Referendum, and that therefore Douglas by switching parties has damaged the chances of what he wants most. This is, of course, self-serving nonsense.
We need to understand why the Prime Minister promised an EU referendum in the first place. He had an immediate objective: to buy-off his eurosceptic back-benchers, and activists, and members. To park the Europe issue in the long grass until after the General Election next year. This is cynical electioneering, and few –least of all Douglas Carswell — are taken in.
But there seems to be a longer-term objective too. Cameron has never denied that he wants the UK to stay in the EU. He’s decided that the way to solve the problem, and to make the Europe question go away in the long-term, is to organise a referendum which will endorse EU membership. He believes that the issue will be settled for a generation (though he should remember the EU precedent — if you don’t like the result of a referendum, have another one a few months later. Keep voting until you get the “right” result).
So he’s trying to emulate Harold Wilson’s ploy from thirty years ago. Announce a “renegotiation”. Come back with a few trivial and nugatory concessions (can anyone remember what Wilson’s renegotiation achieved in 1975? No. Nor can I). Wave a piece of paper while shouting “Peace in Our Time”, or “Game, Set and Match to Great Britain”. Then win the referendum and carry on as before.
The fact is that Wilson’s “renegotiation” had less to do with the independence of our country, or our relationship with Brussels, than it had to do with Wilson’s internal Labour Party management. And so it is today with Cameron and the Tories. History repeats itself. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Cameron may have promised a referendum (not for the first time — and he broke the last promise). But he hasn’t promised to campaign for “OUT”.
So a vote for the Tories is a vote to stay in the EU. This is so self-evident that I am surprised, and disappointed, to see that MPs with a eurosceptic track record like Bill Cash, or with the intellectual fire-power of Mark Reckless, or the integrity of John Redwood, are prepared to endorse it. They should know better, and I believe they do.
A vote for UKIP, however, puts pressure on all parties to offer an EU referendum. Ed Miliband seems set against it, but the UKIP surge will put enormous pressure on him — some of his close colleagues are already talking about it. And it’s by no means inconceivable that UKIP might hold the balance of power in the next parliament. Our price for any cooperation will include — you guessed it — an In/Out referendum.
Cameron’s position is doubly cynical, because he knows in advance that no serious concessions are on the table in Brussels. Today the papers are trumpeting the appointment of Donald Tusk, the Polish Prime Minister, as “Victory in the EU for Cameron”
But what’s on offer? Possibly a few minor restrictions on welfare benefits for EU immigrants. But that’s not good enough, Dave. We want to be able to control our borders. We want a cap on immigration. We want to be able to select for needed skills, and to reject applicants — including “EU Citizens” — if they don’t meet the criteria.
Europe will not budge on “free movement”. Or on agriculture of fisheries, or energy. Or on “ever-closer union”. We can’t even stop them from banning popular vacuum cleaners. The message is as it has always been. If you don’t like the destination, you have to get off the bus.
So the people of Clacton will decide on October. Of course as Harold Wilson didn’t quite say, “A by-election campaign is a long time in politics”. We can’t be complacent. It isn’t won until it’s won, and we all have a lot of work to do to deliver for Douglas, for UKIP, and for Britain. But a 44 point lead at this stage is a huge boost — and a huge compliment to the wisdom of Clacton’s voters. They, like Douglas, like UKIP, can see right through David Cameron’s cynical referendum scam.