A Fundamental Failure of Leadership

The Prime Minister’s announcement that, were the Conservative to win the next election, the Government would hold a referendum on Britain’s EU membership is the culmination of a fundamental failure of leadership. Ed Miliband is exactly right when he says that by seeking to play to populism Mr Cameron has putting party before Country, but constructive Europeans should not fear an ‘in or out’ referendum.

David Cameron’s position is misleading, dangerous and politically dishonest. I do not believe for one minute that Mr Cameron thinks that Britain leaving the European Union is to the advantage of the Nation, yet he has allowed himself to be manoeuvred into a corner where he no longer commands a majority within his own party. He can nonetheless command such a majority in the House of Commons. He should use that majority for what he believes to be right and in the national interest. To do otherwise is to put party before country.

Mr Cameron is effectively saying that, as they currently stand, terms of Britain’s EU membership are unacceptable and so the UK should get out. What other logic can there be in his position? He would seek, with a fresh mandate, to re-negotiate the UK’s membership terms and to “repatriate powers” (a euphemism for denuding our hard-won rights). The outcome is uncertain, he may receive some concessions; stranger things have happened. He may believe that the other EU nations will calculate that the destabilising and damaging effect of the withdrawal of one of the big economies is dangerous and worth the price. That is clearly the gamble – Peter Kellner of YouGov set it out at the turn of the year – buy time, get the ultra-sceptics off back, win election, get concessions, recommend ‘yes’ vote, win, see off ultra-sceptics, consolidate personal position. Maybe, but the PM must have considered the possibility of a direct ‘non’ from at least one of the remaining 26 nations – it has, after all, happened before. What then? Is he really saying that he would then recommend withdrawal. If things are really that bad why wait? Mr Cameron might not have a mandate but that didn’t stop his Government in plenty of other areas.

Mr Cameron’s announcement has plunged the immediate future of the UK into uncertainty. Uncertainty is the last thing we need in the economy right now, but we are going to have at least three, probably four years of it. If he wants to hold a referendum he didn’t need to make the announcement now. Has the PM forgotten that businesses have quite enough with which to deal, what with all that double-dip stuff? At this time Europe needs to be an Engine for growth. Austerity is no more working in the Euro zone any more than it is working in Britain. The British Prime Minister is seeking to distract from the failings of his own policies by blaming the failings of similar policies in the Eurozone for dragging down the British economy. We should be changing those policies to promote growth. We should be promoting a stable climate for business in the UK and Europe not making their job harder. The effect of uncertainty will make it harder to build on the inward investment that regions like my own, the Thames Valley, have so successfully won over the years from innovative firms seeking their bridge into EU markets.

Whether referenda are the best way to decide these things is another discussion, but perhaps if they had been held at key points we would be proceeding with certainty. John Major was wrong not to seek approval over the Treaty of Maastricht. To appear afraid of the electorate, rather than to seek to win the arguments is a recipe for disaster. The demand for a referendum has undoubtedly been amplified by politicians seeking to avoid one. It is democrats who lose by seemingly being opposed to democracy. Constructive Europeans have nothing to fear from the ‘in or out’ question being put to the British people. I am entirely confident that the British people will come the crunch, whatever the polls may say right now, decide to stay as they did convincingly in 1975.

For too long too many who support a constructive role for the UK in Europe were timid in its advocacy.  Political and business leaders should understand that institutions command public support only if the case is made and made over again. At crucial times over the past two decades our leaders have conspicuously failed to do so. By failing to make the case effectively Mr Cameron went into Government with the Conservative civil war over the EU unresolved. So now it falls to Labour to take the argument to the British people that their choice is between having the confidence and belief to win in Europe and irrelevance.