My column for ConHome: Why my heart won’t be too heavy this week when I vote Conservative (in a manner of speaking)

by Stephen Tall on May 21, 2014

con home cartoonHere’s my latest The Other Side column for ConservativeHome, published here on Tuesday. I exclusively revealed I would be voting Tory in this Thursday’s European elections. Sort of. My thanks as ever to the site’s editors, Paul Goodman and Mark Wallace, for giving a Lib Dem space to provoke – constructively, I hope.

I’m going to do something this Thursday that I have never previously done on polling day: cast a vote for the Conservatives. Before Lib Dem HQ revokes my membership for this betrayal, I should add this will be a proxy vote for a friend which I have promised to respect (by which I mean carry out the deed rather than esteem it).

My friend was torn between voting Lib Dem or Tory. I’m not sure what the tipping point was, though I can hazard a guess: David Cameron is winning the war of framing the Europe debate. He’s doing so by adopting oh-so-adroitly a tactic attributed to Bill Clinton: triangulating the mid-point between two opposed positions he can label as extreme. Here’s how the Prime Minister responded to last month’s Clegg v Farage debates on whether the UK should be in or out of Europe:

“Nick thinks there’s nothing wrong with Europe and we shouldn’t have a referendum, and Nigel thinks there’s nothing right with Europe and we should just get out and leave. They’re both wrong.”

That’s how to pitch yourself squarely in the centre ground, how to win over mainstream public opinion. What we’ve seen over the last few months is what has been termed ‘the Nigel Farage paradox’ by British Future director, Sunder Katwala: ‘the more that Ukip’s media profile, poll rating and party membership has grown over the last two years, the more that support for the party’s core mission – that Britain should leave the European Union – seems to have shrunk.’  (You can see for yourself by looking at the poll trends here.)

Last week’s Ipsos MORI poll for the London Evening Standard starkly showed the turnaround. In November 2012, 48 per cent wanted to leave the EU and 44 per cent to stay. Now, 54 per cent want to stay, with just 37 per cent wanting to leave. The finding which caught my attention, though, was this: ‘Only 13 per cent want “closer political and economic integration” and just 20 per cent say quitting altogether would be their first choice.’ Close to two-thirds of voters opted for somewhere inbetween: either the status quo (32 per cent) or for the EU to revert to being an economic community minus the political links (30 per cent).

That’s the key to the success of Cameron’s Europe strategy. Small minorities support the fervent slogans of either the Lib Dems’ Euro-enthusiast ‘Party of IN’ or Ukip’s Euro-phobic ‘Take Back Control of our Country’. A large majority support neither. Of course, ‘Better Off Outers’ would point out that the prospect of Cameron achieving ‘an economic community minus the political links’ in his EU re-negotiation is practically zero. True enough. But it would be a mistake to think those voters disappointed by such failure will convert wholesale into wanting a Brexit. Most will probably lump it as a political price worth paying for the economic benefits, and give Cameron the credit at least for trying.

It’s ironic that Clegg should have found himself out-triangulated by Cameron. After all, splitting the difference of your opponents’ arguments to find the sweet spot in the middle is at the heart of the Lib Dem case for coalition government. The Deputy Prime Minister took to the pages of the Telegraph this weekend to make that very point:

‘For the Left, the very act of coalition is condemned as heinous moral treachery; for the Right, the Lib Dems have far too much clout, thus frustrating the birthright of the Conservative Party to do what it wishes. Unprincipled powerlessness on the one hand, ruthless power-play on the other. Both can’t be right. In my view, both are utterly wrong.’ 

On this, I agree with Nick. Yet on Europe he has failed to make the positive case for reform. For a liberal pro-European like me – who wants the UK to stay within the EU, but wants to see far greater democratic accountability, as well as an end to protectionist policies like the Common Agricultural Policy – that’s disappointing. Years ago, William Hague’s Conservatives coined the Ukip-lite slogan ‘In Europe not run by Europe’. I’d prefer a more positive version: ‘In Europe to reform the EU’. It’s a shame the only party leader pushing that aim is David Cameron.

Still, if that pains me, it will pain David Cameron’s own party much more. The Tory truce struck 15 months ago, when the Prime Minister conceded an in/out referendum to his troublesome rebels, has quiveringly held. Conservative backbench dissent has quelled in direct proportion to Labour’s shrivelling poll lead. The distant possibility the Tories might win outright in 2015 – dismissed by this site’s editor Paul Goodman 18 months ago – is no longer impossible. If (more likely) the Conservatives lack a majority but emerge the largest single party Cameron will have to honour his EU pledge: renegotiation, followed by an in/out referendum.

That’s when the fun will truly begin. The rumours are that George Osborne will take command as the next Foreign Secretary, tasked with obtaining a deal that satisfies his party. I have no doubt a deal will be struck. I would be staggered if it succeeds in satisfying the likes of Dan Hannan or Douglas Carswell. Nonetheless David Cameron will tour the country taking his pro-Europe case to the country – as he himself put it in his January 2013 Bloomberg speech:

“… when the referendum comes let me say now that if we can negotiate such an arrangement, I will campaign for it with all my heart and soul. Because I believe something very deeply. That Britain’s national interest is best served in a flexible, adaptable and open European Union and that such a European Union is best with Britain in it.”

Stirring words. Persuasive words. Winning words. Put like this – and it will be – there can be little doubt what the result will be: the public will side with David Cameron and vote for the UK to remain within Europe. I’m not too sure what the Conservative Party will make of such an outcome, whether its ranks will be only splintered, or utterly riven. But I’m not overly concerned either way. It’s why my heart won’t be too heavy this Thursday when I honour my friend’s choice and cast their vote for the Conservatives.

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