Since UKIP’s election success over the past week, much has been made of the Conservatives’ failure to “shoot the UKIP fox” after William Hague announced their promise, back in January, to hold an in-out EU Referendum following a re-negotiation of membership terms.
The policy has clearly, thus far, failed to achieve that goal. But it had two other goals, one of which it has achieved – silencing Tory back benchers – and one of which it has yet to be judged on – the re-negotiation itself.
And the prospects for any such re-negotiation are now looking rather brighter.
When Nick Clegg debated Nigel Farage in March, I was struck by the polarity of the opinions expressed on the EU immigration issue.
Farage said the “open door” immigration policy was deeply damaging to the British working class, while Clegg’s response was simply to say that “pulling up the drawbridge” was not the answer and that to leave the EU would be more damaging to the UK than remaining.
Both of these struck me as perfectly sensible points of view, but what cried out to me, was that the way to the public’s hearts and votes, must surely be to find a way of throwing out the bath water without the baby.
At no point did Clegg address (or have the LibDems addressed since) Farage’s point on Euro immigration. Is the LDs’ view that Farage is simply wrong about the effects Freedom of Movement has on the working class? Or it their view that Farage may be right but it’s a price worth paying since in their view the overall net effect of EU immigration is positive? I don’t know.
Only yesterday we saw LibDems suggesting that their failure to address the Freedom of Movement question may have been a mistake. But in fairness, Labour have been equally silent on that question, and so, perhaps more surprisingly, had the Tories. Until last week.
Many Tories certainly agree with Farage that Freedom of Movement is a problem, but they routinely clam up when pressed on what they can do about it. Indeed they often look (rightly) embarrassed, when confronted with the absurdity of their 2010 manifesto pledge to reduce net immigration below 100k, which is simply not possible without changing the EU rules.
If the Tories were expecting to renegotiate Freedom of Movement to the UK in 2017, you’d expect them to have trumpeted that from the rooftops in the EU election campaign. I certainly never thought it would be on the agenda in 2017, as it’s a cornerstone policy of the Union. Surely there’s no way Cameron could make any headway on that issue?
So I was very surprised during Friday’s “Vote 2014″programme on the BBC, to hear Sajid Javid, the new Culture Secretary, not only openly agreeing that the “open door” EU immigration policy was a problem, but also saying that EU immigration was indeed one of the policies which David Cameron would be seeking to renegotiate when the time comes.
Despite the political ‘earthquake’ caused by UKIP, Javid’s comment was my political “moment of the week”.
If that really is the Tories’ plan, why did nobody say so during the EU election campaign? Surely that is the “middle ground” option that would have appealed to voters? Perhaps they are privately hoping to achieve something on immigration during the renegotiations, but don’t want to trumpet it because they think their chance of success are slim.
Or perhaps, just perhaps, senior Tories might be rather happier with UKIP’s Euro election win than they’re letting on. After all, the stronger the Euro-sceptic vote, the better Cameron’s playing hand when it comes to renegotiation, and if Brussels sees a real risk of an ‘out’ vote in a subsequent referendum, who knows what could be on the table?
Of course, all of this pre-supposes that David Cameron will still be Prime Minster this time next year, which given the Tories’ current position in the polls, would seem very optimistic.
Until you picture the only alternative.
On Monday Ed Miliband was still insisting that a key issue behind UKIP win was – you’ve guessed it – the cost of living crisis. Right now he looks more likely to be skating home from work with Beelzebub next June, than enjoying a ride back to No. 10 in the Prime Ministerial Jaguar.