I must confess to finding the whole EU debate rather esoteric and often a bit pointless. By far the most important piece of information we’ve had today – electoral or otherwise – is the encouraging jobs numbers. For the record, the employment rate is the highest it’s ever been, the number of people with jobs is back to what it was in Spring 2010, full-time jobs are up, the number of people claiming out of work benefits is down and the number of long-term unemployed is down too. Worryingly however there are still concerns over the rate amongst 18-24 year olds, and of course the substantive questions about growth still stand.
However. Inevitably lots of people will be crowing from the rooftops that this is the day the Tories won the 2015 election. This is almost certainly not true. There are some structural reasons and some political reasons for this.
The most obvious political one is that UKIP are not going to go away as a result of this – mostly because for most UKIP supporters, their main concern is not the EU.
The lesson must be that, having agreed this referendum, we should move on to what matters in the reforms we are instituting now, and the improvements they deliver to people’s lives now and in the future.
And of course the two key questions remain: what would a majority Conservative government want to renegotiate on (I doubt a five year refusal to detail that can hold), and what happens if it all comes good, and David Cameron wins in 2015, negotiates a blockbuster deal for the UK, then wins a yes vote in the anticipated referendum? Will that settle it for everyone? I suspect not…
A useful political advantage is that – as ever – the big statesman pieces from David Cameron really work to his advantage; that whole ‘sensible, uniting, moderate leader of the nation’ thing is very effective and much more appealing than the alternatives.
One structural problem is the tension in the approach that many within the Tory party take to the two unions that we live in. While they are very different beasts, I have always found the variety of approach interesting.
The biggest structural problem is that we simply don’t know what we will be voting on in a few years – but more importantly, what is the institution of the EU going to do in the meantime? For the past few years it has been just plugging the gaps on the euro crisis and related problems but that cannot go on forever. At some point a decision will need to be made, and the timing of that will be vital for both the UK’s position and for the Tories’ domestically.
I’m not trying to be ungracious here; I think a referendum is probably now a necessity for both internal and international reasons, and I think this speech was a very serious and purposeful elucidation of where we are, and what needs to be done. But I do have a dual concern. First that for many Conservatives, this will feel like The Message that will win us the next election (which it self-evidently is not), and secondly that voters might as a result only hear us talking about a referendum on the EU as a reason to vote for us next time – which will only confirm their suspicion that we don’t care about fairness, jobs, education, the NHS, the environment, housing, living standards and about the rest of the world.
None of that is true. But we need to remember that we must explain what we’re doing, show that we are interested in and committed to the things that ordinary people care about, and what we would do about those things in the future as well.