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Will the Tories stop talking about Europe after May?

March 15th, 2014

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When being in touch becomes being out of touch

Ed Miliband’s non-promise of a referendum this week may have been designed to do several things.  It could have been a reassurance that a future Labour government wouldn’t repeal this administration’s European Union Act 2011, though it would modify it and that modification could be significant.  It could be a half-hearted effort to join the In-Out debate.  It could have been an effort to confirm his pro-EU credentials.  But all these seem a bit weak.  From Labour’s point of view, the biggest benefit could have been setting the Tories off again.

As Mike has pointed out on many occasions, Europe ranks relatively lowly in most voters’ concerns.  Seeming obsessed by the subject has done the Conservatives any amount of damage from the late Thatcher era onwards.  On the other hand, the Conservative position is of itself a relatively popular one: a looser relationship and an In-Out referendum both have substantial support.

How that balance plays out comes down to that earlier point.  With the European elections in only a couple of months, it’s entirely relevant to be campaigning on the EU.  After all, it’s not just the Conservatives but Labour and the Lib Dems too who’ve been promoting their position, never mind UKIP.  It’s whether the Conservatives make an obsession out of a virtue that’s likely to determine how the public view it.

All successful election campaigns will be based on a small number of key messages.  Too many and the focus becomes lost and the public confused; too few and you look like a one-trick pony, a party of protest not of government.  If the Conservatives are sensible, they’ll make plenty of play about their European policy now, when it’s relevant, and then keep it quiet after the vote.  Those who strongly support the policy will have heard it, as will those are vehemently opposed; those who aren’t much bothered will decide on different topics.  In each case, Europe will no longer determine their vote.

However, that’s also true in reverse.  The Conservatives’ strongest card is the economy, assuming that Osborne delivers two gimmick-free budgets, designed reinforce an air of confidence and competence, and assuming that the recovery avoids any domestic bumps for another year.  Even so, campaigning relentlessly on that topic will only deliver so much, particularly as the fruits of the policy are only just showing and even then, not to everyone by any means.  Again though, no party can afford to be simply technocratic.  Other messages, including softer ones, need to be in the mix too.  Europe has a part to play in that policy set, particularly now while it’s relevant.

The question is whether the Conservatives will be able to flick the ‘off’ switch after May.  I’ve long been expecting the Blues to finish third and polling behind UKIP would cause much soul-searching, with all sorts of unsolicited, meant-to-be-helpful suggestions.  Resisting those suggestions, and indeed that whole debate, will not be easy but may well make the difference between success and failure in 2015.

David Herdson

p.s. I do wonder whether Ed Miliband is secretly a member of Better Off Out.  His offer of an In-Out vote on future treaty changes would be by far the most likely mechanism to secure a British exit.  If countries like France, the Netherlands and Ireland can reject treaties, then surely Britain can.  Trying to bully the electorate into something they don’t want by threatening to take away something else may well backfire spectacularly.  It’s precisely why the Yes campaign in Scotland are so keen for No to lay out an alternative, to change the vote into one between two options, rather than for or against one (and why No will refuse).