15th June 2016
–By Keith Nieland-
Is Teflon Dave just about to become Toast?
It all seemed so simple. Calm the quarrelsome backbenchers by promising a referendum in the next Parliament. Tin can successfully kicked down road. Do a bit of negotiating. Look terribly busy rushing around the capitals of Europe. Strike a deal. Tell the plebs we have nothing to worry about as I have done a deal on all those things that niggle us about the EU. Hold referendum. Win handsomely. Retire into history as a great Tory leader and become a national treasure. Simples!
This was no doubt Dave’s plan but he forgot one thing. Those dastardly so-called friends of his who want out of the EU could use the same election strategy which has brought Cameron success in the past. Focus on one thing; link every issue to it; tell a few fibs (it will not matter win or lose); control the debating ground. Remember Boris’s London Mayoral election which turned into a referendum on Ken Livingstone’s tax affairs or the SNP demons from the last General Election? Well this time it’s immigration. With some success the Leave campaign have turned the EU referendum into one on immigration. They have tapped into a simmering concern amongst voters.
Suddenly everything is the fault of immigrants. The length of NHS queues for treatment, the housing shortage, depressing wages, overcrowding on public transport, shortage of school places etc etc. I have my own beef with immigrants. I hold them responsible for the shrinking size of Wagon Wheels. Before we joined the EU they only cost a penny and were 2 foot wide! So confident are the Leavers becoming that their leading campaigners are openly stating that not everybody may have a job in the post-Brexit world and the pound may plunge in value but “so what?”. Voters may now be willing to swallow economic hardship in exchange for resolving the immigration issue as they see it. There will be more immigration scare stories over the coming days no doubt and stunts to warn us of the threats posed by Johnny Foreigner.
All this is, of course, of Cameron’s own making. The NHS is under pressure because of underinvestment not because normally young, fit and working migrants are banging down its doors. You are more likely to be treated by a migrant than have one in front of you in the queue. The housing shortage is a direct consequence of Government inaction and particularly taking away building powers from local councils, as council estates might produce Labour voters. And there is no evidence immigrants depress wages. School places are in short supply because Cameron abandoned the previous Government’s school building programme and instead funded the free schools programme. Most immigrants come to this country to work, to do jobs that UK residents are unavailable to do or do not want to do. Any bidders out there to wipe bottoms in care homes or spend all day bent over picking cabbages? With a rising elderly population we need more people working and paying taxes to fund pensions and services.
This time it looks possible that Cameron’s easy charm, sweet words and general air of confidence may not win the day. He might have chanced his arm once too often. Some may say this serves him right and good riddance. There is no way he could survive as Tory leader following arranging a referendum on his own terms and then losing. The problem is whatever follows would be infinitely worse. Boris as PM with Gove as Chancellor and a job via the House of Lords for Farage. The swivel-eyed foreigner watchers would be everywhere. Boris might (in the interests of democracy) call a general election. He would win by a landslide by re-running the referendum campaign. Lots of fibs about recreating a great Great Britain that has never existed except in the imaginations of Leavers. The fibs would not matter as lack of progress in producing the new Utopia could be blamed on the European Union and migrants for years to come. Incidentally does anybody seriously believe Corbyn could beat Boris in a straight head-to-head fight?
If the opinion polls are to be believed the vote is very tight. Neither side might win handsomely and thus put the EU issue to bed indefinitely for better or worse. We risk becoming a split nation with all the embitterment and anxiety that comes with that.
It could all still work out well for Cameron. Every previous referendum has shown a swing to the status quo as polling day approaches. Those of us with real anxieties about what the United Kingdom might become outside the EU might be worrying unnecessarily. Perhaps we are not on the cusp of a great shake up in the tectonic plates of politics.
Whichever way it turns out I cannot be other than left with the feeling that this has been an unnecessary and damaging referendum which has had more to do with squabbles on the playing fields of Eton between Cameron and Boris and turmoil in the Conservative Party than the true long-term interests of the British people. Perhaps Cameron should have shown real political courage and stated that as long as he was PM there would be no referendum as remaining in the EU is overwhelming in the interests of the British people. He could have used all that easy charm and negotiating skills to quietly pursue change from within the EU.
Win or lose Cameron has enough personal wealth to live quite comfortably in the Cotswolds. It’s the rest of us who have to live with the consequences of his referendum.