29 January 2016

David Cameron is beating the Eurosceptics, for now


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Tom Scholar’s memoirs promise to be an interesting read if he ever gets round to writing them several decades from now. The senior civil servant who is shuttling between London and Brussels is David Cameron’s senior advisor on the EU and the key intermediary with the European Council, representing the member states, and the Commission, the executive arm of the EU. In a previous role, Scholar was one of a small group of Whitehall officials – along with John Kingman and outgoing Permanent Secretary Nick Macpherson – who ran the operation reporting to Chancellor Alistair Darling during the financial crisis of 2008. Yet dealing with the meltdown of the banking system appears to have been relatively easy compared to the even trickier task of sorting out the UK’s relationship with the EU to the satisfaction of British voters and 27 other member states.

The reason Scholar and his colleagues have been working so intensively on a deal is that while David Cameron is not obliged to hold an in-out referendum on the result of the renegotiation until the end of 2017, he is in reality desperate to do it as soon as possible. The precise details of the deal are not significant. It is a high-speed diplomatic farce in which both sides pretend to take very seriously the bogus idea that the the future of the continent of Europe rests on agreeing an emergency brake on benefits for migrants, when migrants from within the EU are not travelling for those benefits. They are coming to work. This element of the negotiation is an example of bureaucratic capture, in which the self-perpetuating motion of the government machine pushes it on, while no-one involved can really remember how this became the main demand. Indeed, no sane voter has ever been found who thinks that this – benefits for migrants – is central to anything.

No, this current rush is about pure politics, hailing a deal whatever it is and winning the referendum as quickly as possible while the other side – Out – is in disarray. Do not under any circumstances believe the Prime Minister’s claim this week that he is relaxed about delaying if no deal can be finalised in February. His allies know that a delay risks the migration crisis in Europe worsening at the height of summer, which could spook voters who are deeply, deeply concerned about immigration and the porous nature of the EU’s borders. A delay would give the Out campaign a chance to highlight this and to get organised.

Hence the hype around this weekend’s talks in Brussels ahead of what might – might – be an announcement early next week of a formal offer from Donald Tusk, president of the EU Council. If there is then an agreement on the 18th, Cameron will have to rush through the necessary parliamentary instruments, the official campaigns will have to be designated (I’ll come back to that car crash in a moment) and a ten week formal campaign will precede a vote on his favoured date of June 23rd.

None of that is straightforward. But the stars are certainly aligning for David Cameron. As one leading Westminster hack put it to me: this could be the completion of what Cameron and his circle of allies aimed to do when they seized the Tory leadership in 2005. Even if they made some Eurosceptic noises back then, socially they were repelled by hard-line sceptics, whether they were on the Tory backbenches or in UKIP. Cameron’s description of Ukippers as closet racists and fruitcakes stems from that revulsion. It’s social as much as anything else. Hard-line Eurosceptics were seen as the saloon bar bores who had helped destroy the Tory brand and the Cameroons wanted to squash them, which they may be in the process of doing. That distaste for UKIP is shared by a great many voters, even some of those who might be tempted to vote for Out.

This is what is at the root of the serious difficulties by experienced by the Leave/Out campaign, or should I say Out campaigns plural, because many Tory Outers and donors want nothing to do with Farage and UKIP. It is extraordinary, considering how long Eurosceptics have agitated for this vote that there should be such intense warfare at this late stage, but there you are. “I must say,” says an ally of Cameron involved in the deal-making, “that I did think they (Out) would have got their thing together by now.” But no, they haven’t got their thing together.

Life is too short to go into every single detail, needless to say that there are two – I think it’s two, but goodness knows it may be more – rival campaigns. There is Vote Leave, run by Matthew Elliott and Dominic Cummings, a former advisor to Michael Gove. Last week an attempted coup by Eurosceptic Tory MPs, who want Cummings out, failed. His interviews and public musings on referendum strategy have driven them bananas.

All of this is being hugely enjoyed by Leave EU, the grassroots outfit, established by Aaron Banks, a wealthy UKIP donor. Initially it was imagined at Westminster that the Banks team had no chance of being designated as the lead Out campaign (with the right to TV time and spending limits and so on) but now, who knows? If Jeremy Corbyn can become Labour leader, anything can happen.

The authorities will have to decide which campaign gets that mandate to take on the Stronger In Cameron-run campaign, possibly within a few weeks. Attempts are underway over lunch to instigate a Eurosceptic merger, with Leave EU demanding that Cummings make a futile gesture and quit. Eurosceptic Tory MPs are running around in the middle, wailing about the horrors of associating with Banks, who has robust views and is a big pal of Nigel Farage.

Actually, it is a hell of a story, on which Sam Coates of the Times has led the way. I am surprised it is not the focus of more attention beyond that. David Cameron should have it made into a Netflix series or a DVD box set for his enjoyment this summer. Here we are possibly less than five months away from a historic vote on the EU and the Eurosceptics are re-enacting the scene from Monty Python in which the multiple splits in the People’s Front of Judea are explained.

So, that must mean Cameron wins? His greatest triumph awaits, the completion of his project, via a deal and then a 60-40 win over Out, with the Tory Eurosceptics exposed and then ground into the dust. That expectation certainly explains the reluctance, cowardice even, of Eurosceptic members of the cabinet who have  discovered that after years of harrumphing they must stay in the EU after all. It is all a bit embarrassing.

A Cameron triumph looks like the most likely outcome right now. But the Remain crowd shouldn’t be too smug: they are rushing the referendum for a reason. The election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader last year, and the triumph of the SNP, shows how febrile and unstable the party system is. In the US, not much more than six months ago Jeb Bush was seen as the front-runner for the Republican nomination and he has since been Trumped in spectacular style by an insurgent uprising. All that donor money and Establishment backing did Bush no good; indeed it hindered him.

That said, it will be extremely difficult for Leave to win, considering that they will have all the mainstream leaders and numerous business types ranged against them. But anti-elite feeling combined with concern on immigration and the cost of the EU (which appalls undecided women voters most) gives them a sliver of a chance. First, the Outers need to focus on winning, which means stopping killing each other. Good luck with that.

Iain Martin is Editor of CapX