Events dear boy, events

Triesman4x3.jpgDavid Triesman on why the Prime Minister’s strategy for an EU referendum ignores not just the ‘knowns’, but the ‘unknowns’ too

Prime Ministers have complex jobs. They must lead. They must set the strategic policy direction for the country and their government. They must optimise support at home and with allies abroad, although not necessarily consensus. They must manage their own party. The direction and interests of the country are paramount.

David Cameron has, with his Europe statement, decided to emphasize only the management of his party. He has failed the test of leadership. As he courts populism with much of his party and the media he will enjoy short-term applause. The attempt to ride the Euro-sceptic tiger has tempted Conservative leaders just as it has usually destroyed them.

On this occasion he takes the strategic punt of promising an ‘in-out’ referendum probably in 2017, if he remains Prime Minister, without any clarity about what the UK’s people will be asked to judge. He says it will be a judgement on whether repatriations of powers have been achieved to popular satisfaction or not – but he cannot say what is on his menu. He cannot say what would lead him to vote in one direction or another. He cannot say what the impact of four or five years of crippling uncertainty will do to the economy.

Indeed, with a shrinking economy facing triple dip recession, downgraded growth forecasts lagging other major economies, one million youngsters out of work and full-time jobs declining, and the purchasing power of low and middle-income families shrinking, you might have thought these would be his central concerns.

Apparently not. 

Mr Cameron says that a new settlement is likely with Europe because they cannot afford to get along without us. He believes the UK’s demands – some of which, in relation to budgets and regulation, do need to change – can be readily met. We are all entitled to be fanciful but the wholesale changes he hints to seek appear a forlorn delusion.

What is plain to me, as someone who works in financial services, is that you cannot meet a serious investor making long-term plans and de-risking investment who seems willing to take the same punt on us. They cannot de-risk and embrace years of uncertainty. What would be in the UK’s interest in stretched financial times, what seem absolute priorities today, are precisely what Mr Cameron is hazarding.

I don’t buy the idea we should not ‘write off’ negotiations yet to happen. I know ministers say this, without conviction, when they have little faith in their strategy and need to buy time.

I am told the Prime Minister believes the next five years will provide scope for creating a pro-European alliance. Really? Over five years there will be constant unpredictable events, and shifting alliances. No one has any credible idea of what such an end-game involves. He will be hit by a flow of events. Indeed, if he remembers Harold Macmillan, Mr Cameron will understand why failure awaits him. “Events, dear boy. Events”.

Lord David Triesman is Labour’s Foreign Affairs spokesman in the Lords

31st January 2013

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