Staying in Europe will be David Cameron’s acid test for Britain

(photo: Telegraph.co.uk)
(photo: Telegraph.co.uk)

Tony Blair’s former spinner-in-chief Alastair Campbell wrote a (mostly) perceptive piece on his blog early on the day of the British election. Campbell was doing hindsight history showing how the electorate always gets it right on the day. His conclusion was they were about to get it right again by making Ed Milibrand prime minister, a dream that would be crushed in the following 24 hours. Britain had spoken again, but Doctor Campbell had misdiagnosed the illness. The patient wanted more of the drugs it already had, not a completely new treatment.

Campbell thought his analysis of the previous six election results in the UK would provide answers to a series of questions about the 2015 election. Twenty-eight years ago in 1987 Margaret Thatcher won a third election because she had the form and the agenda. Five years later Thatcher was gone but Britain said Labour was not yet fit for government under Neil Kinnock. In 1997 Britain finally thought “New Labour” (a slogan Campbell had significant investment in) meant something and gave them a landslide. That margin was enough to win again in 2001 but by 2005 Tony Blair was on the nose after Iraq. Like Thatcher he just did enough to win a third victory and like Thatcher, his biggest problem was on his own side.

By 2010, Blair was gone and it was Gordon Brown against David Cameron. Was Britain ready for change and was Cameron the answer? Campbell said the answers were “yes, and we are not sure.”  The political gravity shifted to somewhere between the Tories and the LibDems and the Coalition was born.

Campbell said the questions in 2015 were was Britain on the mend and were Cameron and Osborne trusted with the keys? Also, could Cameron keep the country together? Campbell said the Scottish referendum result was too close for comfort and Cameron was now playing off English nationalism against Scottish, with disastrous consequences.

“Ed Miliband, if he does become Prime Minister, will do so having shown he can make and win difficult arguments and do so in the face of a wave of powerful vested interests who have thrown all the money and the lies they can muster,” Campbell said. Campbell was right about the powerful vested interests and there will certainly be plenty of smiles in Wapping from newspaper owners, who are still packing a punch despite the decline of their product.

But that was as good as it got and the rest of Campbell’s interpretation of history proved badly miscued. Labour made no inroads on the government, were smashed in Scotland and the collapse of the Lib Dems handed a thorough victory to the Conservative Party. When the message the electorate sent was they wanted the Tories with something to spare, Campbell wrote an update where he was suitably chastened.

“Sometimes, when advising people I work with, I will say beware the dangers of being so deep inside your own team’s bubble that you end up believing your own propaganda and lose sight of what is really happening,” he said. Campbell blamed the process for picking Miliband saying Cameron had clear air after the last election while Labour dithered over its complicated ballot. Yet Campbell is saying Labour should take even longer time to have that “debate” this time round. “After a result as awful as this, there has to be real deep soul-searching, and honest analysis about how and we have gone from being a Party identified as the dominant force across UK politics over a decade and more, to where we are today.” Campbell didn’t really say what the party stood for “today” other than being “the dominant force.” That loss of identity is Labour’s biggest problem.

Right wing libertarian Brendan O’Neill is not surprised Labour has no vision saying it had been captured by a “largely London-based opinion-forming set” which insulated it from the “incomprehensible” lives and aspirations of those in the real world. O’Neill’s contrarianism must be taken with a pinch of salt but in Campbell’s world of dominant forces, one man now stands supreme: David Cameron, unshackled from the Lib Dem coalition.

Cameron’s key item of business will be negotiating his major election promise, the tricky EU Referendum. Even here he is in the box seat, and can tell the EU he will walk away unless he gets significant concession he can sell to his electorate. He knows Germany wants Britain to stay in the Union and he will extract every euro cent from that advantage. But Cameron will have to take the matter to the electorate and from that point on, cannot control the result.

Predicting results of voter intentions in the UK is fraught, as this election proved. But smart money would be on a similar result to Scottish independence a roughly 55 to 45 split in favour of those wanting to stay in Europe. Opinion polling supports this outcome too. The position of the newspapers will be important, particularly those inclined to be Euro-sceptic. But Scotland itself will be the wildcard, especially as the vast majority there want to stay in the EU as Scottish citizens.

Alastair Campbell is right about the electorate knowing what they are doing: they chose the Conservatives because they offered the most certainty. The problem is there are many factors outside the control of the prime minister and the voters. Cameron has tighter control of the reins of power but whether he can hold the horses and keep them running in the one direction remains to be seen.

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