challenge facing the UK Prime Minister is not only a crisis of confidence in
his party but also a crisis of confidence in himself.
In December last year (15/12/2012) the "Daily Telegraph" reported on the defection of Tory supporters, including some constituency officers, to the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). Specifically it quoted Geoffrey Vero, President of the Conservative Association in Michael Gove's Surrey constituency, the Secretary of State for Education, who recently stated that if there were a referendum today he would vote for the UK to leave the European Union. Though not a defector himself, Vero was reported to have said that he believed it is “inevitable” that the Government’s push for same sex marriage would drive Conservative voters into the hands of the UKIP. Another constituency chairman described the Prime Minister as “barking mad.” Again, the reason for this somewhat extreme diagnosis was not in the least the Prime Minister’s view on Europe, but on same sex marriage.
The UKIP has also picked up support in other areas which have little to do with the European Union and much to do with capitalizing on the disillusionment felt among right wing social conservatives. For example, the UKIP supports the restoration of the Grammar Schools, which in Britain at least is considered a “right wing” policy, Britain’s Labour Party having a long tradition of opposing any measures that encourage social mobility.
It may be that introducing “Gay marriage” was unnecessarily provocative and that action to create genuine equality for civil partnerships would have had more consensus. But the genie is out of the bottle and any retreat now would be seen as the return of the “nasty party". Thus the Prime Minister has little room for manoeuvre.
However, he has decided to try bidding against the UKIP on Europe and this I think is a mistake. As we can see from above, many of those who have moved to the UKIP have not done so over Europe, and those who have are likely to stay there. On the other hand, by courting the Eurosceptic vote, the Conservative leadership has done great damage to its campaign for the centre vote (which it needs to win the elections). Many of us on the centre-right must be seriously wondering whether we could vote for a party which might well lead the UK out of the European Union. I use the word “lead” loosely, for it increasingly looks as if David Cameron is not leading public opinion, but following it.
The Prime Minister’s approach to Europe is not only wrong-headed electorally: it is bad for Europe. The European Union desperately needs reform and the democratic deficit must be addressed. Britain with its long democratic tradition and complex political pluralism could be a major player in the reform of the Union. Mr Cameron could be the spokesman not just for British interests but also for all those who are outside the increasingly fragile Franco-German alliance.
For example, David Cameron could lead the case for ending the two-parliaments circus, the reform or abolition of agricultural subsidies, and the proper auditing of accounts with an anti-corruption campaign and proper codes of practice for those in leadership positions in the EU. Although the current President of the Commission survived a vote of no confidence by MEPs and has somehow maintained his credibility despite his support for the attack on Iraq, it is doubtful that he would have been elected in a democratic Europe-wide election. There should surely be a complete prohibition on EU leaders accepting “hospitality” from those who might find themselves seeking financial or other benefits from the EU.
It is indeed a strange anomaly that the Prime Minister has chosen to lead on the issue of Gay marriage and to take his Government ahead of much of his party, and into a most controversial area in the country. He is to be commended for the courage of his convictions but not on the quality of his leadership. When he makes the argument, he makes it weakly and he allows opponents to hide behind the coded message that they are against it because it is a “waste of Government time” and it only concerns a small minority in the country.
Other Conservative MPs are allowed to make the case that gay marriage would somehow degrade the institution of marriage, even if those same MPs have been married and divorced on several occasions and have conducted more than the occasional extra-marital liaison. I am afraid this is an argument Mr Cameron needs to be courageous enough to make. There is no point in standing on a point of principle if you do not explain to anyone why.
Likewise on Europe, Mr Cameron appears to be trying to address the people whose support he has lost on other issues by trying to buy them off by scapegoating Europe. Meanwhile he is hemorrhaging support from the thinking centre. It may be that the Liberals will recover those votes and some ground, but equally these are the very voters who can be persuaded to vote Labour if and when Labour develops a coherent economic policy. It is tempting to observe of Ed Miliband that unlike the Prime Minister, he has Balls.
We have recently seen members of Cabinet abstaining on a motion which criticized the Queen’s speech; that is, the Government’s own programme. In doing so, they are laying down a marker and serving notice to David Cameron. Neither of the most prominent Eurosceptic Ministers seem to have been particularly effective Secretaries of State. As a Conservative and an ex-Headmaster, it gives me no pleasure to say that I believe Michael Gove is profoundly wrong-headed. In demolishing the Academy Programme developed by the previous Conservative and Labour Governments (and which was a labour of love for the late Dame Angela Rumbold and for Lord Adonis), Gove created an even more bureaucratic edifice for his so called "Free Schools" which are anything but free as he continues to pile on pressure from the centre. Ironically, Gove ought to be most comfortable with the European Union bureaucracy, his department so often resembles it. But make no mistake, those who are speaking in code against gay marriage or who are laying down their anti-EU credentials are setting out their candidacy to lead the rump of the Conservative Party which would survive the ousting of David Cameron. A post Cameron Conservative party might well look more like Michael Foot’s Labour Party than Tony Blair’s.
By the way, what is wrong with freeing schools not only from local authorities but also from the Secretary of State? And what is wrong with giving parents vouchers to use at any school including fee paying ones? And what is wrong with the selection of students for more specialist schools, highly academic, music, sports and so forth? The last Labour Government actually expanded a specialist and highly selective music school but would not for example support the education of students with special abilities in maths or sciences or languages or history. Now this is one policy Mr Cameron could lead on and work alongside the chairman of the 1922 Committee of Conservative backbenchers. The return of the Grammar schools and access to independent education for those who cannot afford the fees would help to promote social mobility and community cohesion and could well be presented as a policy for the centre. It is an example of what the late Sir Keith Joseph spoke of when he distinguished the “common ground” from the “centre ground”. Such an approach would hang well with Mr Cameron’s style. Alas, we cannot call it a “philosophy” - but then, even Margaret Thatcher hardly established “Thatcherism” in her first term.
So somehow we who broadly support the Cameron agenda need to say so, but we also need to make him understand the damage he is doing if he makes Europe a scapegoat even temporarily. Mr Cameron has but a short while to find in himself the strength of leadership and courage not only to pursue his convictions but to articulate them more strongly. In Europe as at home he needs to occupy the centre-right and it is his voice, not Joseph Daul’s, which should speak for Europe’s Centre Right. If he can find that voice he will very quickly discover there is a Europe beyond the far north West which is ready to listen and to respond.
On the other hand, if Mr Cameron turns the Conservative Party in on itself and speaks only to the readers of the “Daily Express” he will lead his party to defeat and will destabilize Europe with it. This will please the Tory Shires, and it will please Russia, but will do immense harm everywhere else.