Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Cameron throws for a double six on Britain's future

You wait years for a referendum on the constitution, and then two come along at once.

He's already be forced into a position where one dice is being rolled on Scotland's future, and now the right of the Tory party has pushed David Cameron into blowing on a clenched fist and throwing for a second time on the EU.

We have been waiting for what seems like decades for this speech from a Conservative Prime Minister and Eurosceptics like Liam Fox, on the tv just now, can barely conceal their delight with EU referendum pledge.
The right wing of the Tory party has Cameron by the goolies, and they’ll raise the rafters at Prime Minister’s Questions in half an hour.

Finally the Tories have an answer on the doorstep to the threat of UKIP, but will they heed the advice of Lord Ashcroft, who spends a fortune on crunching the numbers in marginal superpolls, and now get on to talking about things that matter to voters?

Ashcroft has the best comment, so far, on what has to be considered an important speech, that for the first time in a generation put the possibility of the UK leaving the European Union onto the mainstream political agenda.

Ashcroft is worth quoting: “The new policy will be in the manifesto. The only question is whether we will get a chance to implement it – and that depends on whether we get a majority at the next election. And that depends on how voters think we are doing on the economy, jobs, public services, welfare, crime, immigration: whether we are on their side and understand their priorities.

He concludes: “It is time for Tory Eurosceptics to declare victory and talk about something else.” Fat chance of that.

This is a big moment in British politics but Cameron himself has a lot of talking to do if he is to convince voters this throw of the dice is in the national interest and not to party advantage.

That’s the snapshot Westminster picture - and we’re waiting to see if Ed Miliband has counter-punch or whether he’s willing to be pummelled by that rare thing, a untied Tory party, albeit one out of step with the public.

From the other end of the East Coast line the Prime Minister looks guilty of a constitutional double cross.

After pushing for an early Scottish referendum, and arguing that economic uncertainty would be caused by a long delay, how can he kick his own referendum into the long grass, beyond the next election and halfway into a parliament he might not command?

If he claimed that a referendum on Scotland’s independence causes uncertainty for business, what does this do to an economy ten times the size of Scotland’s?

(Midway into the negotiations on 2014 Cameron did declare that he was “not fussy” about the date of the Scottish referendum, but would rather it sooner than later)

First Minister Alex Salmond was out of the blocks briskly this morning, describing Cameron’s long crafted speech as “fundamentally confused” and “painfully short on detail”.

Salmond said: “On the one hand he is trying to appease the Eurosceptics on his own backbenches and on the other he is trying to appear as a European reformer. He is trying to ride two horses at the same time and it is inevitable he will fall off before long.”

Salmond restated his claim that the biggest threat to Scotland’s membership of the EU comes not from a referendum on independence but from “the persistent undercurrent of Tory Euroscepticism”.

We could see parallel negotiations in the middle of this decade - a breakaway Scotland talking its way into the EU (the SNP now accept there would be no automatic entry) and a rump UK looking for a new deal or threatening to leave.

Both scenarios depend on a lot of ifs and the polls don’t look particularly good for an independence vote or a Tory majority in 2015. But there a hard political furlongs to go before either vote.

Only one certainty, the one thing Cameron and Salmond have in common, deep down neither leader really wants their referendum.

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