David Herdson on a crucial weekend
If there were any doubt that David Cameron is a lucky politician, events in Europe this last week have again made the point. No sooner had he suffered a setback at the European Council, failing to win a chance of treaty reform, than the Greek government gives him (inadvertently, no doubt), a huge helping hand.
The decision of Alexis Tsipras to commit his government to destruction by a method to be determined by the Greek voters tomorrow might be somewhat unorthodox by normal standards but then this is no orthodox government. The act of a snap referendum was, however, perhaps predictable as the equivalent of a student sit-in or protest march, which is the kind of politics Syriza is familiar with: the belief that a demonstration of solidarity and causing enough of a fuss will force opponents to grant concessions.
Those tactics work rarely enough in the workplace or the university, never mind the conference chambers of government, which is why Syriza has signed its own governmentâ€™s death warrant. If the voteâ€™s a Yes then its resignation follows, leading inevitably to new elections which one presumes the centre-right New Democracy would win. Alternatively, if itâ€™s a No then itâ€™s a more drawn out and bloody affair with an inevitable stand-off effectively between Yanis Varoufakis on the one hand, Wolfgang SchÃ¤uble on the other and the Greek banks and population in between.
By that point, irrespective of the economics, political factors would be paramount and the overriding consideration of the creditors would be to avoid setting an easy precedent â€“ and the creditors, who in the context of an uncontrolled bank run have the trump card of effectively controlling Greeceâ€™s money supply and hence its ability to import food, petrol and other essentials â€“ will therefore win providing they keep their nerve. Quite how the government would fall remains an open question but that it would fall is not.
Which way the vote will go is hard to call. The betting markets have Yes at a consistent 4/9 with SkyBet offering No at 7/4 (all other bookies quoting 13/8). That seems to me to considerably overestimate Yesâ€™s chances; sufficiently so to recommend No at those odds.
No is clearly the loud campaign â€“ who rallies for austerity? â€“ and the government clearly believes its own delusions as to what the outcome will mean. And voters believe in the truth of that which is plainly strongly believed. Furthermore, at the last election, the main parties actively, if independently, advocating No polled 52.8% between them (you canâ€™t call as disparate a group as the communist KKE, the radical leftist Syriza, the populist-nationalist ANEL and the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn a â€˜coalitionâ€™ or â€˜allianceâ€™). By contrast, those advocating Yes, the conservative New Democracy, centrist Potami and social democrats Pasok only polled 38.5%. (The rest of the 2015 vote went to parties who failed to make it to parliament). The polls, with one exception have all shown the two sides within 4% of each other but with upwards of 15% undecided. That doesnâ€™t feel to me like a solid Yes.
Of course, a loud campaign isnâ€™t necessarily a winning campaign and Yes voters have plenty of reasons to be shy about their intentions. The likelihood is that No will struggle to reach most of the undecided: if they were inclined to vote that way theyâ€™d already be there. The question is whether Yes can motivate them instead.
What does all this have to do with David Cameron? Domestically, it again reinforces the message of responsible spending, of fixing the roof while the sun shines or at least making a start once the stormâ€™s passed. Within the EU, it means the UK is no longer the most awkward member. True, the notion of opting out of ever closer union might be heretical to some but at least Britain wants to do it by changing the rules and staying within the rules. Greeceâ€™s game-playing, by contrast, is disruption of a different order. Thereâ€™s an incentive for the Euro-elite to differentiate between the two approaches. Furthermore, thereâ€™s a real risk of Greece not only leaving the Eurozone but the EU itself. To lose one member may be unfortunate but to lose two would risk starting a fashion. There is therefore a strong incentive to cut a deal.
But itâ€™s not just about appeasing the Brits. The Eurocrisis has been the beginning of the end of the Delors-era EU: the Europe of the Social Chapter and the federalising-through-regulation. The austerity programme, forced on many members in part via the Euro, has meant a rolling back of the social agenda. Put simply, itâ€™s shifting the EU to the right. And thatâ€™s the positive case for Cameron to put to the sceptics in his own party.