I wasn’t a member of the Conservative party in 2005, when David Cameron was elected, and I have often wondered how I would have cast my vote if I had. Thinking about it, had my conversion from socialism occurred two years earlier, I would probably have voted for David Davis. I was, and still am, heavily influenced by the works of Friedrich von Hayek, Milton Friedman and Britain’s experience of economic liberalism under Margaret Thatcher’s premiership.
But thinking about now – older and a little wiser – I have accepted Cameron was probably the only credible candidate. As much as I admire David Davis’s politics, now that I look back, there is something of Sir Keith Joseph about him that would have barred him from a position of leadership. Sir Keith is another politician I have a lot of time for and greatly admire – but a party leader he was not. He even admitted this himself, telling Anthony Seldon in 1987 “it would have been a disaster for the party, the country and for me” had he been the ‘right wing’ candidate instead of Margaret Thatcher in the 1975 leadership election.
This is not to say I particularly like David Cameron or his brand of Conservatism (though this is partly because very few people seem to actually know what this is). I dislike the way he has repopulated the upper echelons of the party with Old Etonians, I dislike the fact the 2010 flagship policy was a wishy-washy idea no-one understood and I really, really, dislike his arbitrary attacks on individuals and companies legally avoiding excessive taxation.
But the man is a good leader and at the heart of this is good management. Because whatever else you may say about David Cameron, he reinvigorated the party, united it and oversaw its biggest electoral swing since the 1930s in 2010 – remember that we still had fewer than 200 seats in 2005. But most impressive is his style of governance. Unlike many of his recent predecessors, Cameron has a very collegiate style and generally allows his ministers to get on with their jobs – not to mention keeping them in their jobs long enough for them to actually master them.
But he is also a listener and, as many have commented, seems to be at his best when his back is against the wall. And, on Europe, he has been remarkably adroit. No-one pretends he wants to leave the EU. He is openly in favour of membership and is the archetypal eurosceptic (or what that used to mean, anyway), in that he sees it as an institution to be reformed, root and branch if necessary, but not departed from or dissolved. Indeed, this was the founding principle behind the break from the federalist European People’s party and the founding of the European Conservatives & Reformists in 2009.
I should make it clear I do not share this brand of euroscepticism. As a believer in small government and localism, I do not wish for my country to remain a member of what is fast becoming an autocratic, social democratic superstate and believe we should have a referendum on our continued membership as soon as possible. But then, so does Daniel Hannan, yet this doesn’t stop him being president of the ECR. The point being, politics is as much about pragmatism as it is about conviction and, despite the hype, this is something of which Margaret Thatcher was also all too aware.
Cameron doesn’t want to leave the EU but the pragmatist within him can see the wind is changing in the country and in the party. It made sense to ‘stop banging on about Europe’ in the early days of his premiership and focus on rebuilding the party’s image but that was eight years ago. That was before the financial meltdown, before the rise of UKIP, before the continent’s poorest nations were barbarically thrown onto the sacrificial fire of the euro and well before Jose Manuel Barroso announced plans for a federal Europe would be drawn up in 2014.
Having previously said he was not in favour of a referendum because Britain was better off in (thus precluding the outcome), Cameron has committed to holding one in 2017 should the Conservatives win a majority in 2015, largely due to pressure from his backbenchers. Some may see this as weakness but I think it’s another case of good management. Cameron has carefully avoided the European issue, focusing instead on more pressing matters, until events had turned the tide decisively in favour of a referendum.
And, for all the hoohar about today’s proposed amendment to the Queen’s speech, pushing for a referendum in this parliament, it is worth keeping in mind it has only been signed by 32 MPs – two of them not even Conservatives. This is hardly surprising, as the present parliamentary arithmetic in the House of Commons would make it impossible to pass such a bill. And it is also worth remembering – despite the media managing to spin the intervention of Lord Lawson, Lord Lamont and Boris Johnson into ‘growing pressure on Cameron’ – that all three actually spoke in favour of a 2017 referendum. Their imagined criticism was only by adding that any renegotiation – which is the proper thing to at least attempt before an in/out referendum – would fail and that they personally would vote to leave the EU. ‘Tories call to leave EU’ is a hardly a shocker, is it?
The ball is now in the voters’ court. All that remains for the party to do on this issue is to drive home to the electors that the only way to guarantee a referendum on Britain’s EU membership is to vote Conservative in 2015. Labour doesn’t want one, the Liberal Democrats lied about wanting one and UKIP can’t get one. In fact UKIP has become, ironically, the biggest single obstacle to this generation of Britons ever getting a vote on the EU by splitting the eurosceptic vote. But true patriotism rises above party ties (which is why Enoch Powell called on people to vote for the then-eurosceptic Labour party in 1974) so if you truly want Britain out of the EU, whatever your political colouring, vote Conservative in 2015 and let’s send Brussels packing.