Memo to the PM: show Brussels who’s boss

As Europe’s economic crisis persists, the success of UKIP is a reminder to the Tories that politicians cannot ignore the people

Features UK Politics
Man of the moment: Douglas Carswell, UKIP's first elected MP, won a crushing by-election victory against his old party, the Tories (photo: Carl Court/Getty Images)

Autumn has not been a good time for the European Union. In Britain, a by-election win in Clacton gave UKIP an MP and rammed home to Brussels the unwelcome message that the electorate may want to exercise the break clause. Meanwhile, across the Channel, France and Germany, the EU’s lynchpins, face dismal economic forecasts. The upshot there may be that Berlin and Paris now face the same question that haunts London: where should power lie?

Indeed, not only was there UKIP’s victory in Clacton, where Douglas Carswell, who had defected from the Conservatives, his party for over 20 years, won 60 per cent of the vote to the Conservative’s 25. Two hundred miles to the north-west, Labour almost lost its safe Heywood and Middleton seat to UKIP. It now seems that UKIP’s victory in last May’s European elections was not the flash in the pan or “protest” vote many assumed it to be. Something is happening in British politics, something today’s leaders may not understand. As Carswell told the Clacton people in his victory speech, he resigned and stood for re-election because “I answer first, foremost and last to you. You are my boss. I will not let you down.” 

The MP British voters elect represents them, deliberates in Parliament on policy and as a member of that forum holds the government of the day to account, protecting the liberty of men and women. This in practice means the freedom to live their lives under the law, to work and prosper and to turn their MP (and government) out for failing. Britain’s way of life is guaranteed by this accountability, the leitmotif of British democracy: accountability of government to parliament, and of MPs to the voters. That accountability and the responsibility which it implies was nurtured by the great 20th-century political leaders, Baldwin and Churchill, who believed it imperative for the new age of mass democracy. However it has been eroded by EU rule and undermined by “PR” politics, which first dominated under Tony Blair. MPs are required to answer, not to their constituents, but to their party managers for whom the image the party should convey matters more than the reality of voters’ views; the government benches are swamped by the payroll (or automatic “yes”) vote, and the main parties whip MPs mercilessly to support the official line. However, for Westminster at least, the voters retain the last word: they can refuse their vote or turn out their politician at election time. But over the unelected lawmakers of Brussels they are powerless.

UKIP’s new voters are many and varied. They include London lawyers, Oxbridge academics, business leaders, and a broad cross section of the social and economic mix which makes up Britain’s electorate. They also include in especially large numbers the important group left behind by the PR men and their political masters: the C2s, the working — and lower-middle-class voters who gave Margaret Thatcher three victories and her successor John Major a fourth. They remain a strong but forgotten force, neither politicised nor political. For them, the EU spells an end to life as they know it. Those in business see jobs and orders lost to leaner economies as business goes down under the weight of EU rules and compliance costs; employees see their wages undercut by cheaper foreign labour; families are forced to split siblings into different schools because of pressure from newcomers on places. Such voters earn their own way, want no favours from government and have no illusions about the basics of capitalism. They know how hard it is to find and keep a job and prosper in a tough market, and that for this trading nation to survive it needs to work hard, selling its goods to Europe and to the world.

Opinion polls plotting people’s three highest concerns continue to bear this out. The economy, immigration and Europe regularly top the list and the consequences of the recession — still evident everywhere despite the government’s optimism — are exacerbated by the failure to deal with the EU over the decades. Nowhere is this clearer than on immigration and the loss of border control, in line with the EU’s free movement rules.

Immigration remains the number one issue for many voters. They are not xenophobic, but pragmatic about the limits and costs of an open border policy. For them the debate is no longer just about curbing benefit tourism or the red tape of Brussels. Rather, across England’s complex electoral landscape there is scepticism about political will, and a sense that British politicians are no longer on the side of voters when it comes to the EU. They see neighbourhoods changing; soaring house prices and the pillaging of the green belt; overcrowding in schools and pressures on the health service. Although these are not new problems, they have been exacerbated by the influx of EU nationals from poorer countries, who often provide employers with cheap labour and are seen as undercutting British working people. In the words of UKIP’s leader, Nigel Farage, people “want their country back”.

Across the channel, France’s small centre-right party, the Debout la République (Arise the Republic), “twinned” earlier this year with Mr Farage’s UKIP. Though this suggests some similarities between French and British Euroscepticism, there is also a less agreeable form of Euroscepticism on offer in France, as championed by Marine Le Pen, which is frightening the French political establishment through its popularity. Altogether, France may prove the EU’s greatest headache, mainly because of another of its extremist politicians, the unfortunate François Hollande. His socialist policies (only now, too late, becoming more moderate) combined with the economic effects of EU requirements have made him the country’s most unpopular leader. They may also end by threatening the European project. French economic growth is slow. GDP is expected to rise by just 0.4 per cent this year, by 1 per cent in 2015 and reach 2 per cent by 2017. Meanwhile France’s deficit exceeds the EU-permitted 3 per cent of GDP, but Hollande does not intend to cut it quickly. Rather, the plan is to meet prescribed budget limits two years later than promised, reducing it to 4.4 per cent this year, 4.3 per cent next, only reaching the prescribed 3 per cent in 2017. That scenario not only threatens France’s AA credit rating, but also implies that the Élysée Palace is both out of step if not at odds with its EU co-founder and partner in the project, and unable to control its leftist troops at home. President Hollande has had a turbulent rentrée. Having sacked, in late August, ministerial colleagues who opposed him on deficit reduction in line with Angela Merkel’s austerity policy, his reforms inspire little confidence from any quarter. These amount to a paltry £16 billion annual budget cut (local authorities and welfare benefits will take the hit), modest tax rises on petrol and television licences and some business-friendly gestures, and it’s unlikely they will do enough to close the gap or promote growth. If anything, the left wing of his party has won this round, powerful in parliament and unconstrained by office.

Meanwhile the Germans now have their hands full with their own economy. The initial growth figures for August turned out to be worse than expected; exports fell in August by 5.8 per cent on the previous month and manufacturing orders and production declined. The projections for German growth now look chaste: the IMF suggests 1.4 per cent for this year, 1.5 per cent for next, others slightly less, and the German government itself now expects growth to be 1.2 per cent this year (down from its previously estimated 1.8 per cent) and 1.3 per cent next year (down from 2 per cent).

Mrs Merkel’s plans for Eurozone fiscal union therefore face economic uncertainty from the big two: the danger of France slipping into recession and the weakening outlook in Germany itself. French and German voters, along with many in the world of policy, believe the present model cannot be sustained. Everything, from the French rejection of “social dumping” to Germany’s concerns about benefit tourism, suggests the current EU is on borrowed time. But it will be Britain which makes the first move.

Nigel Farage is no xenophobe but a one-time Conservative supporter with a career in the City as a metals trader and a genius, like his political heroine Margaret Thatcher, for anticipating and accelerating the change he and many in the older parties have long registered. The rapidity of his moves would have done the most daring general proud. His message is simple and has stuck: “Better off out.”  

If David Cameron is to meet the message of the moment, he too should move rapidly, and recognise that disillusioned voters in the North, no less than Conservatives further south, want to hold those who make the law to account. One way he can make this happen is to adopt the strategy proposed by Martin Howe QC in his Politeia pamphlet Zero Plus: The Principles of EU Renegotiation. Zero Plus means that the government should start its renegotiation from zero, with a blank page on which it sets out — this is the “plus” — what relationship with the EU Britain wants and the bilateral arrangements needed to bring it into effect. On no account should the negotiations proceed in the other direction (“Status quo minus”, so to speak) and aim to chip away at the many existing treaties, a process which would take years, amount to very little and be unlikely to win the consent of the other 27 countries.

For Howe, who specialises in EU law, the aim would not be to leave the EU, but rather to remain within it on terms which suit Britain. He emphasises, however, that all the options must both be considered and prepared for, including that of leaving the EU if Britain’s aims are not met. That, says Howe, is a prerequisite for any successful negotiation. Indeed, Zero Plus negotiations might lead to a new category of membership, one based on free trade with the EU without the many layers of additional obligations added over the decades. Such membership would work well for Britain, returning the sovereignty which the people of this country increasingly demand for Westminster over Brussels.

Britain’s new relationship, negotiated from zero, would be based on the free movement of goods and services, to the benefit of each member state as well as Britain. It would not allow for the unconditional free movement of people from the EU.

Above all, it would rest on the premise that no longer can ultimate powers over justice and the making of law binding on people of this country be exercised elsewhere. This would mean that voters once again were the boss.