By Lord Risby
There were several reasons, not least the length of time in office, why the Conservatives lost so dramatically in 1997, but there was one word that affixed itself to the party – namely, disunited – which was routinely used by the media and commentators, based on internal differences about Europe, which was electorally very damaging. It is a word which must now remain in the deep freeze.
We should also remind ourselves of Labour’s actual performance in Europe, which l was able to observe at first-hand for over three years. When Tony Blair in 2000 launched the Lisbon agenda, the EU was set the strategic goal for the next decade of becoming the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world. What amazed our European neighbours was the total lack of any follow-through by the British Government: no diplomatic or political will or influence was brought to bear.
Its failure was a foretaste of what was to come. In 2001 the Nice Treaty was agreed to – in principle to introduce new structures to accommodate the expansion eastwards. It was an unnecessary, uncomplicated mess but was described ludicrously by Keith Vaz, the then Europe Minister, as having the same importance as the Beano magazine. With our agreement, it saw the emergence of the Charter of Fundamental Rights. Enlargement brought the free movement of citizens of the new member states. The government declared that 13,000 people would arrive here, guaranteed to keep this under review – and of course did no such thing.
Meanwhile, Tony Blair, in seeking to win friends, notably Jose Maria Aznar, the then Prime Minister of Spain, tried to fix joint sovereignty for Gibraltar – a wholly unprincipled undertaking. As the decade progressed. it was agreed at Laeken that the democratic deficit between EU institutions and Europe’s citizens needed to be addressed. Again, British influence in the resulting European Convention, the forerunner of the Lisbon Treaty, was minimal, and when the final document meetings took place, the then European Minister, Peter Hain, tried far too late to put down dozens of amendments, the majority of which were summarily thrown out.
This thread of flabbiness and lack of purpose again manifested itself when the UK gave up part of its rebate to secure reform of the Common Agricultural Policy – a process successfully and expensively hijacked from under our noses. More latterly, when pan-European financial regulation first reared its head, there was no Ministerial effort whatsoever to stop this: it was left to UK officials in Brussels. Whilst it is true that the UK under Blair and Brown did manage to row back on some EU Commission proposals, and we did not join the Euro, the whole tenor of our relationship with the EU, over and over again, was not doing the hard, grinding work of building viable relationships or setting and carrying through an agenda in the national interest – but in practice inevitably being carried along in the slip stream of others.
I have no personal theological view of the EU, but the same culture of spending money domestically in a wholly misfocused way was matched by a comprehensive unwillingness to initiate and single-mindedly drive forward a modern reforming framework for the EU. It is one thing to keep your powder dry whilst in opposition, but the total unwillingness by Labour to produce even the most minimalist policy platform begs the question why. To have as the main architect of our fiscal drunken orgy their current Shadow Chancellor is both breathtakingly counter-productive and reflects Ed Miliband’s lack of authority.
As l observe daily in the House of Lords, there is no public cause for which more money is not demanded. Both functionally and emotionally, their detachment from fiscal reality is alive and well, and if ever back in office will reassert itself very quickly indeed. In respect of the EU, the ball is now in their court. They cannot any longer get away with talking about the Conservatives. Bland talk about unspecified reform is not a sustainable position any longer in the face of the clear Tory referendum commitment.
David Cameron’s EU speech and the future proposed actions which have been rolled out, are prefaced on a Conservative victory at the next general election. Of course, there will be lively discussion about the EU, but he has framed very clear parameters as to how, as Prime Minister, he will proceed. The failure of Labour to set out and fight successfully for EU institutional reform and addressing the democratic deficit means that the task is now more complicated. It is now crucial for the Party to rally behind him and trust his judgement. Before any Conservative talks about Europe, he or she should never provide a reason for the word disunited to be appended to our name again. Whether it be in the domestic or European context, the only thing that matters now is to prevent Labour winning again. His speech has made that aspiration that much more likely.