TORY Eurosceptics will worry Prime Minister more than SNP, and he and Sturgeon could well be on same side, writes Allan Massie.
The 56 SNP members of the new House of Commons may huff and puff, but for the next two years David Cameron is going to be more occupied, and more concerned, with Europe and the terms of our membership of the EU than with Scotland. No doubt there will be talks with Nicola Sturgeon about further devolution, even though it would be sensible to see how the recommendations of the Smith Commission work once they are put in place before taking further action. But really Cameron need do nothing immediately about Scotland even though he will be aware of the imminence and importance of next May’s Holyrood election.
The EU negotiations are more urgent. He has made a manifesto commitment to renegotiation and a subsequent referendum, in which, unless his negotiations prove barren, he will campaign in favour of our continued EU membership. Nobody expects that referendum to be easy. It may well prove as divisive as last year’s Scottish one, and possibly more bitter. Ukippers and anti-EU Tories are every bit as capable of being abusive and nasty as our Cybernats, indeed even more so, judging by some of the comments attached to articles in the London right-wing press.
We may assume that Cameron will have learned one thing from his experience of the Scottish referendum. He ceded the advantage then by allowing the SNP to frame the question. He is unlikely to make the same mistake again. So we shall probably be asked if we want the UK to remain a member of the EU, not if we want to leave. It is much easier to campaign for a “Yes” vote than for a “No” one. The “Yes” camp makes a positive statement; the “No” one is unavoidably thrown on the defensive. Throughout the Scottish campaign the “Better Together” side were charged with negativity. This was in part because of the arguments they advanced and their lack of any sense of vision, but it was also the consequence of being compelled to call for us to vote “No”. As I remarked at the time, “No” can’t be anything but a negative word. It is interesting, if futile, to wonder what the margin in favour of he Union might have been if the question had been framed differently.
Europe has bedevilled the Conservative Party for years. Argument and backbench revolt over the Maastricht Treaty did much to destroy John Major‘s government. Cameron, a junior special adviser then, must be only too conscious of this history. Moreover he has a slimmer majority than Major had, and has been returned to Downing Street on a much lower popular vote. One of the leading Maastricht rebels was Iain Duncan Smith, now in Cameron’s cabinet – where he is by no means the only Eurosceptic.
Cameron‘s problem will not be getting a Referendum Bill through the Commons. Those Tories who want the UK to leave the EU are eager for the bill. There may be a dispute about the timing of the referendum itself, the Outs wanting a long campaign, Cameron probably a short one. Here too he will surely have learned from the Scottish experience where the long drawn-out campaign favoured the side demanding change.
It’s the negotiations themselves which will prove difficult, though it’s possible that he will find more agreement and support from other member states than would have seemed likely only a few years ago. There are of course those – especially in Brussels itself – who believe that the answer to the perceived problems of the EU is ever-closer union. It‘s unlikely that Cameron will find much sympathy from the commission whose president, Jean-Claude Juncker, is a Euro-federalist. But it’s the council of ministers, representing the member states of the union, that he really has to convince.
He may find support there from unexpected quarters, even from France. If Cameron has Ukip and his own Eurosceptic Tories to deal with, President Francois Hollande is faced with a far more formidable challenge from Marine Le Pen and the Front National which advocates withdrawal from the euro, and large-scale repatriation of powers from Brussels, especially over control of the frontier and immigration. Marine Le Pen almost certainly won’t win the next presidential election, but a succession of polls have indicated that she may well head the first round of voting. That election is due in May 2017, possibly coinciding with the UK referendum. It may well be in President Hollande’s interest to support extensive EU reform in order to buy off or placate FN voters.
Accordingly Cameron may get more significant concessions than now seems probable, as other national leaders in Europe see benefits for them in reform.
On the other hand, if negotiations don’t appear to be going well, and if it seems that any concessions are likely to be little more than cosmetic, unrest will simmer on the Tory back-benches and dissension may fester in the cabinet. For the moment things are going Cameron’s way. Even his many critics within the Tory Party are grateful to him for having obtained a majority which few of them expected, but gratitude seldom lasts long in politics. Many of those who have never liked the Prime Minister are also among those who demand what they call “true Tory politics”, and Mr Cameron no longer has a Liberal Democrat shield to shelter behind.
The European question has in different ways bedevilled the Tory Party for almost 30 years. It’s doubtful if David Cameron can lay it to rest. If he succeeds in doing so, it would be a signal triumph. Even so, that victory might be at the expense of party unity. Even a successful renegotiation of our position in the EU would be met with loud cries of “betrayal” and would give a new boost to Ukip which would open its arms to Tory defectors. As we have learned since last September, a comfortable majority in a referendum doesn’t put the issue being voted on to rest, doesn’t mean that the defeated accept the verdict – or not for long.
That said, the coming EU referendum does present us with an interesting prospect: the sight of David Cameron and Nicola Sturgeon standing side by side and arguing for continued UK membership of the EU: an alliance, however odd, which might even go some way to bringing on a reform of the UK that would satisfy Scottish nationalist feeling – to some extent and for the time being anyway.