terça-feira, 16 de fevereiro de 2016
David Cameron can’t win on Brexit
LETTER FROM LONDON
David Cameron can’t win on Brexit
A majority of Tory MPs will probably support their prime minister on the EU. But it won’t be because he persuaded them to.
By JOHN RENTOUL 2/17/16, 5:30 AM CET Updated 2/17/16, 6:16 AM CET
LONDON — David Cameron has secured everything he promised in his EU negotiations, only the same old Conservative faces oppose his deal, and the opposition is in disarray. All the same, he is in deep trouble.
For the all-conquering prime minister, everything will start to unravel in Brussels this week. The leader who won the election against the polls, the pundits and the odds; who stretched every sinew of negotiating ingenuity to win a deal that looks as if it might be acceptable to 27 other nations; who managed his own party, with a ferocious history of division on the Europe question — until now. Now we are going to hit the emergency brake.
So many things can go still wrong for Cameron — let’s count the ways. The most obvious is that the deal could come unstuck at the last moment. The prime minister’s intense EasyJet diplomacy over the past few months has been unprecedented. But energy and a persuasive manner do not guarantee an outcome.
Cameron took the elementary precaution of setting his demands low. Most of them were carefully pitched at what he knew would be acceptable to other EU leaders. The only tricky one seemed to be the requirement that new arrivals to Britain from other EU countries would have to pay taxes for four years before they could claim working tax credits — an income supplement for the low-paid.
This is still a 28-sided negotiation, in which each of the 28 has to agree and therefore also has negotiating power. If you give politicians enough leverage, some are bound to try to use it.
But this is still a 28-sided negotiation, in which each of the 28 has to agree and therefore also has negotiating power. If you give politicians enough leverage, some are bound to try to use it. So it could still all come unstuck as leaders meet to agree on the text at the European Council summit on Thursday and Friday.
And then Cameron would be back on his budget-air tour of the continent en route to the next summit, with a pall of failure hanging over a negotiation that has tried the patience of his EU partners. It wouldn’t be long before he started to bump up against the deadline he set himself for a referendum by the end of 2017.
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What would be even worse for Cameron, though, would be an agreement in Brussels this week. Then the modesty of his demands would start to count against him.
Opinion polls show that the elements of Cameron’s negotiation are popular. The British people don’t want to be committed to “ever closer union;” they don’t want the eurozone countries to dictate to countries with their own currencies; they like more powers for national parliaments to block EU laws; and are overwhelmingly in favor of the four-year wait for tax credits.
But British voters also think that the whole deal doesn’t go far enough in recasting the terms of the U.K.’s membership of the EU.
It would be extraordinary if the European Parliament’s sulky jealousy of its own prerogatives helped to push the U.K. out of the EU.
This week the European Parliament exposed the spatchcock deal. Because there isn’t time in Cameron’s political timetable to rewrite EU treaties, his deal depends on changes to EU law that require the European Parliament’s approval. This week, the Parliament’s leaders refused to guarantee that approval in advance. Which means that the British people would be invited to vote in a referendum on a deal that could be undone by MEPs soon afterwards. It would be extraordinary if the European Parliament’s sulky jealousy of its own prerogatives helped to push the U.K. out of the EU.
When Harold Wilson renegotiated the U.K.’s terms of membership in 1975, mainly by allowing more imports of New Zealand butter, the prime minister of Belgium complained that Europe’s heads of government had been “reduced to the level of auditors in a supermarket chain.”
Forty-one years later, jumped-up representatives elected on low turnouts by uninterested voters refuse even to be reduced to the level of promising to honor a deal to keep Britain in.
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Which brings us to opinion polls. There is something strange going on with British polling companies, already battered by their failure to predict last year’s general election. Telephone polls, conducted among that shrunken minority of people who answer their landlines and don’t hang up on unsolicited calls on their mobiles, show a majority in favor of staying in the EU. Internet polls, conducted among people who have signed up for online panels, tend to show a (smaller) majority for leaving. But both have shown a movement towards the exit door since Cameron’s draft deal was published early February.
Philip Cowley, political analyst at Queen Mary University of London, commented: “There’s a very simple solution for anyone wondering which of the polls are right about the referendum, which is: Learn the lesson of May 2015, and don’t base your analysis or coverage on what the polls are saying.”
But one more thing about the opinion polls before we do that. I was influenced by polls suggesting that Cameron’s recommendation would be influential in rallying support for his deal. And I still think that it is important, especially when backed by the chief executives of all 250 FTSE companies and the governor of the Bank of England. Yet, paradoxically, the recommendation of the leader of the Conservative Party may carry less weight with Tory MPs and party members.
These are people who know what they think about Europe. They are not as hostile as is often assumed. For a long time the term “Euroskeptic” applied to those who opposed Britain adopting the euro — a debate that, even though it ended in 2003, has obscured the deeper division between those who basically want out of the EU altogether and those who could be persuaded to stay in a reformed Union.
For a long time, Cameron managed to keep this second group on board, but this week could be the moment they finally have to choose. And it looks as if large numbers of them will plump for Brexit. Cameron’s deal is such a small and cosmetic thing that they are not likely to be impressed by prime ministerial prestige and establishment consensus.
A majority of Tory MPs will probably support their prime minister. But it won’t be because he persuaded them to. Most think it’s in their own interest
A majority of Tory MPs will probably support their prime minister. But it won’t be because he persuaded them to. Most think it’s in their own interest. It is notable that the most senior Tory likely to declare for Brexit is Iain Duncan Smith. As a former party leader, the work and pensions secretary is respected within the tribe, but he is not popular with the wider electorate. Michael Gove, the justice secretary, is publicly agonizing over his choice, but is not popular either. The Outers are desperate for a more inspiring figurehead.
That’s why all eyes are on Boris Johnson. The mayor of London is of that endangered species, the politician of whom more people have a favorable opinion than an unfavorable one. People who know him well say he’ll land on Cameron’s side of the fence, but with an exaggerated show of reluctance designed to persuade the Tory party members who will choose the next prime minister that he is really one of them.
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Which brings us to the Tory grassroots members. Polls suggest a large majority are opposed to EU membership. Some of them might be swayed by their leader and the campaign, but the best Cameron can hope for is that they split equally for and against on the issue. This is the Tory party disaster Cameron has tried to fend off for more than a decade, ever since he appealed to his party to stop “banging on about Europe” when he ran for the leadership in 2005.
The Tories lack the enforced discipline that comes from a threatening opposition party, and can’t count on that sentiment to keep them together. They can be as divided as they like and still prevail over a Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn in 2020.
It is hard to see Cameron’s premiership ending well in such circumstances, whether or not he wins the referendum.
It is hard to see Cameron’s premiership ending well in such circumstances, whether or not he wins the referendum. If he wins, what if the anti-EU members in the Tory party respond to their own defeat the way Scottish National Party supporters did in Scotland in 2014? What if the party grassroots become energized and make it their cause to fight for another referendum in a few years’ time?
Then there is the question of what happens if Cameron loses his referendum. Graham Brady, the leader of backbench Tory MPs, argues that the prime minister should stay on to handle the two-year process of leaving the EU. I don’t see that position lasting any longer than 10 p.m. on June 23 — if that is indeed the night of the referendum.
It suits both Brady and Cameron to pretend that the prime minister can lose a referendum and carry on. Brady because he doesn’t want the Outers, of whom he is one, to be seen as personal crusaders against Cameron. Cameron because he doesn’t want to give Labour voters the chance to turn it into a referendum about him.
The moment a vote to leave the EU is announced, however, the situation changes. Cameron may try to hold onto office, but his party will not be so indulgent.
Whatever happens this week, Cameron’s troubles are only just beginning.
John Rentoul is chief political commentator for the Independent on Sunday and a biographer of Tony Blair.