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Why are pro-EU Tories so shy of making their case?

By Paul Goodman
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During the 1980s, the "wets" of the era tried to laugh off Margaret Thatcher as "the immaculate misconception"..."the great she-elephant"..."Attila the Hen".

She soon had their bloodied heads impaled on poles.

Thirty years on, the euro-enthusiasts are trying to laugh off those who want to leave the EU.  "Cranks...gadflies...nutters."

They are risking the same fate - or at least, losing the argument and seeing Britain quit Europe.

Why?  Let's think it through.

The best test of public opinion is the degree to which voters believe Britain's membership of the EU is an important issue facing the country.  Euro-enthusiasts, Conservative or otherwise, say that those polled continue to give the issue low priority.  They are right.

But they would be wrong to dismiss the shift in public opinion.  We recently reported further evidence of a move in the public mood against the EU.  True, polls don't tell us everything, and can be reversed - as the AV referendum campaign reminds us.  But they do tell us something.

In this case, they are telling us that the current Eurozone crisis; the cost, unaccountability, remoteness, rapacity and waste of the EU; the relentless barrage of anti-EU reporting in the right-of-centre press and an instinctive British distrust for the EU project are bonding in a way potentially fatal for Britain's membership.

David Cameron recently said that the crisis gives Britain renegotiation opportunities.  I remain very doubtful about the Prime Minister's intentions in this regard, but not about those of an increasing proportion of Tory MPs, which Iain Martin recently reported.  Over 30 years, I've watched them turning slowly sceptic.

Steve Hilton and Oliver Letwin are reportedly convinced that the only means of creating the Big Society is leaving the EU.  And there is a shift in the European Parliament (of all places) as well as Downing Street.  The Tories are out of the EPP, and have a Euro-sceptic leader.

All persiflage, I hear you say.  All cover for bailouts, European arrest warrants, EU diplomats, ever-closer Union.  And perhaps you are right.  But think about it this way: if you were a Conservative MP who believes that Britain must stay in the EU - and there are quite a lot around - would you really want to take the risk?

In short, it's time for Tories who take that view to come out fighting and make their case.  The point is long past when they could rely either on mocking opponents or arguing tactics - as Anthony Browne did resourcefully on this site last week.

What case? I hear you say.  And since I hear Euro-enthusiasts put it so rarely, I'm not at all sure what they think either.  But since they won't put their view, let me try to put one for them.  None of it, in my view, is decisive.  Some of it is downright bad.  But here it is anyway, boiled down into its four constituent parts.

  • The single market argument.  We'd be bound by single market rules when exporting to the EU that we'd no longer play a part in writing.
  • The inconvenience argument.  Britons would be able to move less freely and have fewer entitlements within the EU if we left.
  • The risk argument.  Foreign investment into Britain would be badly damaged were we to quit.  A trade war would lose jobs and wreck prosperity.
  • The self-image argument.  Great Britain would shrink into a Little UK if it left the EU (assuming that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were willing to do so) - diminished, petty, narrow.

The last point is the best place to start probing this case.  For some, leaving the EU is simply a given: even  if it brought national prosperity, it denies national independence - so we must leave.  Many of them see the real choice as Great Britain v Little Europe.

For others, staying in is also a given: even if the European project brings economic pain with it - such as the ERM debacle.  To them, self-government is backward-looking, reactionary, warped, and the progressive cause and EU membership are identical.

The polls suggest that the first group is larger than the second, but neither, I suspect, have enough critical mass to tilt a referendum one way or the other.  In such an event, the group that does would tend to vote with their wallets.  How might the arguments stack up for them?

  • Is the single market argument really that persuasive?  Yes, we would still have to meet single market standards in exporting to the EU, unless we can strike a Swiss-type bilateral deal.  But we would none the less be released from the political, economic and social requirements of the EU constitution.
  • How much does inconvenience matter?  There may a significant group of voters who (for example) don't want to stand in a different queue when entering EU countries, or who want to claim same benefit entitlements in other EU countries that their citizens claim here.
  • Are there really long-term risks as well short-term ones?  It's possible to envisage short-term turbulence.  Governments don't always heed their citizens' interests or follow trade rules.  Investors could get nervous.  But EU countries need to trade with us, so a long-term trade war is improbable.

For what it's worth, I believe that risk is the best card (though a dog-eared one) for the pro-EU lobby to play: on paper, any EU referendum campaign should be a classic anger-versus-fear contest - the No vote powered by the former, the Yes by the latter.  Unless voters become more frightened of staying than leaving!

  • But I end where I began - with the self-image argument.  Yes, any referendum campaign would doubtless be dominated by the economics.  However, EU membership is ultimately about who we are and want to be - a question that hasn't been addressed in a national poll since 1975.

Should we leave the EU?  In political and economic terms, there'd be short-term pain and medium-term gain respectively.  Should the Conservative Party say so?  That's a different question.  The historical genius of the party is having a sense of what voters want - and they stubbornly give this issue a low priority.

And I'd rather avoid further splits on the issue if possible. But my view scarcely matters any more.  I'm no longer an MP, and I'm not a Minister.  What counts is what MPs think - especially the Euro-enthusiasts, since they're so shy of telling us.  If they've better arguments than mine, why won't they let us know what they are?


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